In a play about a fictional character, an actor has the luxury of being able to bring that character to life on his or her owns terms. The performance we experience is our sole benchmark for who that character is, from their personal ticks to mode of speech. It's only when we see another actor play the same role that we indulge ourselves in the tawdry business of making comparisons.
But when a character in a play is based on a real person, especially one who spent time in the public eye, an actor must navigate the audience's familiarity with that individual, along with all the prejudices and expectations such familiarity breeds. And if the play about this real person is also a "musical tribute" like Always... Patsy Cline, the actor playing the lead has an additional, unforgiving burden. She must not only act like our picture of Patsy Cline, but she must also sing pretty darned close to the way we know, for a fact, that Cline actually sang. Judith Miller accomplishes the former, thanks to a generous smile, a period bouffant wig and several cowgirl get ups that look like they were actually stitched by someone's mother (as Cline's were). But when it comes to replicating Cline's voice, I am afraid that Miller is not quite up to the task, and from the first notes out of her mouth, the folks who run San Jose Stage must have known it.
As I write this, the colossal unfairness of my dismissal of Miller's vocal skills and San Jose Stage's decision to plow ahead anyway reeks. Miller clearly knows this role and is entirely at ease inhabiting her character. In fact, she played it in 1995 at San Jose Stage with the same co-star, Marie Shell, who reprises her part as uber-Cline fan Louise Seger. Not surprisingly, the two work well together, and it doesn't hurt that Shell's voice sounds like it's been marinated in nicotine and alcohol, as we imagine Louise's might have been in real life.
Seger's correspondence with Cline in the last years of the star's life forms the basis of the play. Always... Patsy Cline is Seger's story, and we are right there with her in her kitchen listening to Patsy Cline on the ray-dee-oh and reminiscing about how she'd call the local DJ at all hours to get him to play Cline's music over and over again. Later, we get to play fly on the wall when, after seeing Cline perform live in Houston, Seger brings her idol back to her house for some bacon and eggs. "Men are pigs" they agree, and the single mom's heart breaks a little bit when Cline sings Seger's son a middle-of-the-night lullaby. Much to Seger's surprise, Cline makes good on her promise to stay in touch, signing several years worth of letters until her untimely death at the age of 30 with the words that have been lifted for the title of this play.
This is sweet, sentimental fluff. On the other hand, I'm obviously just a humorless grump because on the night I attended, the packed theater loved this show, clapping like customers in a roadhouse at the first notes of Cline hits like "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall To Pieces," "Sweet Dreams" and Willie Nelson's "Crazy." (Miller does her best work on a number I associate with Connie Francis called "Stupid Cupid." It was one of the highpoints of the show, but the song is not credited in the program.) Which brings us back to Miller's voice, which is smoky, husky and layered. She digs hard for her notes, which sound like they have journeyed from deep within Miller's soul before escaping her lips. Cline's voice was similarly low (she was considered a contralto), but it bubbled up effortlessly, and she could even hit the high notes when she yodeled. Cline's voice also had that had that marvelous crack, breaking in all the right places at all the right moments. Miller can't mimic this, so she inserts extra notes here and there to replicate the effect. It sort of works, but in the end it's a performance of a performance when the promise (the "musical tribute" billing) is for something more.
If there is a silver lining to Always... it is that the production values and staging are up to the usual high standards that the theater company sets for itself. And, saving the best news for last, the live band is great, with none other than Bobby Black sitting in on the Carter pedal steel guitar. Black survived the 1970s with Commander Cody, and on the night I attended he seemed to be having a fine old time. If musician as accomplished as Bobby Black doesn't appear to have a quarrel with San Jose Stage's version of Patsy Cline, maybe I shouldn't either.