By Larry Adams
The Fan Fair folks are gone, but the summer has only begun to swelter. Some will remember when the only escape from summer heat was a shady porch or a cool movie theater or even cold beer and hot music at a juke joint out on the bypass. Neither the Texas Troubadour Theatre or the Ryman Auditorium can pass for a roadhouse, but the air-conditioning works, and their bio-revue shows give a tangy taste of summers past.
Bio-revues are stage shows or cabarets that present a healthy sampling of works made popular by an artist, using as a framework sketches or vignettes from that artist's life and career. The classic Nashville bio-revue is Always, Patsy Cline, which ran at the Ryman Auditorium for a couple of years. Mandy Barnett has since taken her uncanny performance as Cline nationwide. Both A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline at the Texas Troubadour Theatre and Lost Highway: The Music & Legend of Hank Williams at the Ryman are attempts to recreate that success; the results, however, are as different as the shows themselves.
Terri Williams' short biography in the souvenir program of A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline describes the singer as "the best female voice in Branson." You will pardon my Nashville chauvinism, but this phrase accurately reflects the tone of the whole evening. Williams certainly does have a superior sense of Cline's recorded style, but beyond that she does not go. Cline was a country performer, and she certainly was influenced by such forebears as Patsy Montana, but her greatest and most memorable commercial successes were numbers that owed as much to pop and jazz as to C&W. As such, much of Cline's vocal production, especially her liquid consonants and her husky approach, put her in the line of such big-band singers as Jo Stafford and Dinah Shore.
Williams is far more comfortable with the country Cline than with the city Cline. She can draw out Cline's country vowels--sometimes to absurd lengths--but all too frequently she worked the microphone to such an extent that the sound was lost. I also fear that Williams' talents as a musical impressionist occassionally lapsed unintentionally into parody. Throughout the evening, I noticed her interpolation of the famed "Cline break"--e.g., "I fall to pie-ces"--in the oddest places. "Life's Railway to Heaven" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" were the two numbers that suffered worst, but the vocalizing happened enough to suggest that Williams hadn't quite internalized the style. Let me say, however, that much of the rest of Williams' performance was quite good. I especially liked her renditions of "Faded Love" and "Poor Man's Roses," but she fared more than competently on the standard Cline catalogue.
Continuity for the production was provided in the character of an announcer at a radio station in Winchester, Va., Cline's hometown. Danny Pickett's performance as the announcer--and as several of the comics who warmed up Cline's audiences--was the crowd-pleaser of the evening. On the night I attended the show, the audience really didn't get into the performance until Pickett went into the second of his comic interludes. The jokes may have been old and corny, but he made them work.
One of the least satisfying aspects of A Closer Walk was the backup band. Along with providing musical accompaniment, each member was supposed to function as a character from Cline's band. Unfortunately, the writers forgot to give these men any part in the show. In the end, it was just as well, since none of them displayed much interaction with each other; only fiddler Mark Thomas Baczynski seemed to manage any stage personality. As a backup band, they were all competent, but the sound worked against them. Worst of the lot was drummer Michael Caputy, whose kit was so loud that it frequently drowned out the rest of the players.
As for other technical aspects of the show, this was pretty much a stand-and-deliver operation. Few attempts were made at creating a mood through the use of lighting. The sets were also pretty minimal--as might be expected for a show that shares a theater with several other events each week. Only the costumes were out of the ordinary. They were recreations of Cline's best-known show outfits and were quite well done. If you are a Patsy Cline fan, A Closer Walk will probably be on your list of things to see this summer. As for everyone else, they'll be heading to the Ryman for Lost Highway.
As was the case with Always, Patsy Cline, Lost Highway is at all times an accomplished piece of work. Jason Petty, playing the role of Hank Williams, is very much the star of the show, but the whole cast works as an effective ensemble. Standouts are Barry Scott as Tee-Tot, Williams' black mentor, and Margaret Bowman as Mama Lilly. Scott's voice is operatically huge--he'd make a dynamite Crown in Porgy and Bess--and exceptionally rich. Whenever he launches into one of his blues numbers, he instantly commands audience respect. Bowman's Mama Lilly was the great inter-acter of the piece. She brooks no compromise, and her countless stage bits mean that she's a presence even when she doesn't have a word to say.
As I said, Jason Petty was very much the star here, and he really did carry his characterization beyond simply performing the musical numbers. While not quite as accomplished an impressionist as Terri Williams, he presents a more realistic picture of how Williams appeared onstage. He may need to work on his yodeling a bit, and he needs to open the back of his mouth more to get Williams' harmonica-like vocal quality, but Petty can put a song across as well as the character he plays.
About the only unnatural moment of the performance comes when Petty must make a transition between the drunk and drugged-out man and the brilliant performer of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." (Think of all those operatic heroines that sing on like automata after having been stabbed, and you get the feeling of incongruity here.) This small flaw is easily forgiven, however, in light of an evening of fine characterization. The encore number of "Kaw-Liga" is icing on an already rich cake.
I'll be honest, I'm not much of a beer person--even in the heat of summer. And most of the season's movies are for people a full generation younger than I am. So when it gets hot, I think I'll open my window and call out to my neighbor, "Hey ol' Hank's back, and he's singin' at the Ryman. Let's go." After all, the Ryman has air-conditioning.
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