The Palace Theatre
Producer – Mark Bell
Director – Julie Johnson
Production Advisor – Charlie Dick
Stage Manager – Elizabeth Kensek
Musical Director – Steve Barcus
Lighting Designer – Julie Simmons
Costume Designer – Drenda Lewis
Scenic Designer – Mark Bell
Scenic Artists – Hans Gonzalez and Colton Kelly
Sound Technician – Andrew Hall
Spotlight Operators – Jessica Leser and Kristin Burgess
Stagehands – Brian “Teddy” Godsby, Ethan Bomyea and Penny Lee Martinez
Assistant to Ms. Johnson – Penny Lee Martinez
Patsy Cline – Julie Johnson
Little Big Man – Steve Barcus
Voice Over D.J. – Gary Moody
Piano – Steve Barcus
Drums – D. Garrett Roper
Electric Guitar – Jerry Matheny
Acoustic Guitar & Banjo – Kevin Bailey
Bass – Kerry Huckaba
Reviewed Performance 4/23/2016
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Until the scientists fax the AP the results from their long-gestating study of objectivity vs. subjectivity in art, it’s in the best interest of critics – we self-appointed arbiters some artists and audiences still regard as dispensable backseat drivers – to walk that line with surgical precision. True, there’s great benefit for creatives in pursuit of That Great Moment to mull perspective forged outside their laboratory; for a job that functions as a kind of trained audience surrogate, even if artists never use “on-site critics”. Witness how close a surefire trifecta of producer, songwriter and star came to allowing a towering triumph like “Walkin’ After Midnight” to slip into history’s hidden archives: proof that a great artist can’t always see enough outside his or herself to get it right, the kind of “right” you feel rippling through an enraptured audience. But then there are the times your critic finds his or herself in the middle of such an audience, and realizes they’ve gotten lodged in a different wavelength than the joy surrounding them. So what is that critic to do when what’s onstage strikes them as a flaw-flecked half-measure, crowd be damned?
Well, it depends – except insofar as any critic who so much as thinks the phrase “crowd be damned” should close out Word and start putting in other applications (or call a therapist). One of the earliest memories this critic has is as a horrified 11-year-old in a claustrophobic cloud of guffaws during The Waterboy. In a society that remains in the process of casting off some baseline-egregious prejudices, situations like that might justify the motivation of being the only immunity case some sort of sinister brainwash scenario. Critics the world over put their fingers to keyboard in service of deconstructing Adam Sandler’s audiences’ joy. It was good; nowadays we know the 1%ing of Sandler was among the ‘90s sorrier injustices, as well as his value as an actual actor (depends on the context) and his level of remorse for that laundry list of aesthetic offenses (less than zero). A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, the proudly corny, mildly awkward jukebox musical currently running at the Palace over in Grapevine, is something of a mirror-image example. My wrinkled nose’s minority status constituted obsolescence.
For one thing, Cline is a relic, not a new thing; she can’t defend her art, can’t change it for the better. I like Patsy Cline because I’m a music history fiend, and because only contrarians could be anything but captivated by that voice. Under and through the unimpeachable, spit-shined nicety of a Doris Day – a plastic, unthreatening façade – beam her haunted, pained swoops, reminiscent of bluebirds on death dives. Cline had chops, but her containment was practically operatic in itself; her gleaming instrument clean and true by design, she took apparent delight in aiming it, letting it soar aloft around a lyric until the sheer sweet force of it had fully bored into the eardrums she targeted. No chapel or family parlor could’ve turned her away on sight, but in the deep-valley resonances of her work is subtle terror, and profound ache, and the kind of longing that burns impatient souls right to the ground. Her songs were mostly standard lovelorn pop and cold-heart country fare, peppered with full-sincerity gospel and folk tunes of the same ideological fabric, so heavier stuff was always implicit. But the voice spoke volumes.
Onstage in Grapevine, the voice can’t. Cline is played by Julie Johnson, a director-star you might refer to as “regional” if she hadn’t per her bio spent some time trying the Broadway thing. For reasons that may or may not be aurally evident, she didn’t make the grade, and settled for hometown embrace. Johnson is somewhere between 40 and 55 now: the sultry, unwrinkled face of the two albums she’ll sell you after the show now dowdy with vintage, the form embodying the comely country ingénue who (spoiler) died in a plane crash at 30 much closer to Ethel Merman. This isn’t merely visual (it’d be a sh*t thing to say if it was) – in addition to a general “grand dame” aura, Johnson’s voice is more brassy than dulcet, which gets accentuated by an old-style mic that strips away the bass end and metallizes her sound. A veteran of this role, and an unmistakably talented singer, Johnson doesn’t merely win the many numbers she does out of competence; many of the syllables you know she’s studied nail the controlled desperation and ultrafine phrasing of Cline’s originals. But when she flies up, she doesn’t smoothly sail – she belts.
So you’ve got “an evening with Patsy Cline” without Patsy. You’d think in an environment as palpably purist as what I saw, this would doubly nag. Only aware of Grapevine by way of a mall and an airport, the antique southern charm of the Main Street that houses the Palace surprised me. The populace is eminently Texan right down to the proliferation of cowboy hats, the gorgeous theatre’s age revealed not by elegant refurbishments but by the patrons’ demographic makeup. Not only were they casually vocal when they recognized a Cline hit or a fun fact they’d be fan enough to know by heart – this was the only time I’ve heard an audience completely fail to stop chatting amongst themselves for a whole show and been sure it wasn’t out of disrespect. When Johnson missed Patsy’s best heights, or creaked her voice in a way that never worked and Cline never did, I wondered if these amiable grandfolk ever thought twice or judged to themselves. But you could tell how moved they were when she killed (the title song is magnificent, and they save stuff like “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy” for the end for a reason). They even liked it when their fellow senior threw herself into silly dialogue for between-song scenes.
But in fact the show’s charm relies on its only other cast member, the cute, modest effective MC Steve Barcus, who glues what would otherwise be a one-woman affair together (and fills in on piano for the good-but-no-greater band). Between hopping onto that bench for the numbers, Barcus wheels on and comes to rest behind a great half-a-set done up as an old-time radio booth from back when “local color” was even more than a badge of honor. In face and voice, Barcus looks like he stepped out of a black and white movie, and his family-hour courtliness and restrained charisma is flawless. Casual flips between characters are too; he has fun decked out for a goofy Grand Ole Opry comedy sequence (the audience knew the real-life figure he was doing, but I didn’t), or running through dry musical ads for things like Ajax, the show’s only explicit nods to the fact that a lot about the trappings in which Ms. Cline did her thing – at the same time not as Bob Wills and the like, let’s remind, but as the arguably more exciting and inarguably more groundbreaking Beatles and James Brown – could be wholly, objectively, dorky.
I wanted to see this show for the same reason critics and fans contemporaneous with said pop heroes soon found themselves looking back to all those earthy roots that eventually trickled down into Cline and her contemporaries: the idea that something older demands reverence, or has a kind of cleansing effect on scuffing from chaotic modern bustle. The show itself amplifies this timeworn self-delusion, celebrating Cline, without complication, as something Traditional, Old and by implication Nicer Than Now, even though by Cline’s time modernity was certainly in too full a swing for her to function as epochal salve. I wasn’t any more fooled by that than I was by Adam Sandler. But I got something a little less substantial and better for my soul from it: a bushelful of brotherly and sisterly time in the company of Cline’s fond fans, many of whom probably feel deliriously out of step with the day and age to which we all returned when Johnson was done pouring her soul out in tribute. It was a world for which I was glad to share the love. But I’ll be more excited when Deep Ellum does the same thing for Jackie Wilson.
A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE
at the Palace Theatre, 300 S. Main St. in Grapevine, TX, 76051. Runs May 22nd to May 24th, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM, Sunday at 2:30 PM. Call 817-410-3100 for tickets and more information.