Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly A Fine "Cline"

By Dalt Wonk

July 21, 1997: 

WHAT: A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline
WHERE: North Star Theatre, 347 Gerard St., Mandeville, 626-1500
WHEN: Through Aug. 2

For some less-cosmopolitan area theatergoers, a trip across the lake to North Star Theatre in Mandeville seems an extravagant venture to the distant provinces. Quite the opposite, an evening across the lake is a delightful escape from the confines of the city. Knowing that a great little theater awaits you in Old Mandeville is the icing on the cake.

You can almost feel the heat melt away as you tool merrily across the Causeway, stopping, perhaps, at Trey Yuen for dinner before the show. Afterwards, Caffe Grotto, just around the corner from the theater, is a great place to socialize over a little java before the ride home.In addition to all this is the lagniappe that makes a visit to North Star all the more worthwhile: complimentary cookies, lemonade and coffee at intermission, and the galleries of art, antiques and handicrafts that fill the building in front of the theater.

Currently enjoying packed houses and an extended run is the tuneful retrospective A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline. Those who have seen Southern Rep's production of Always ... Patsy Cline will feel right at home in this warm homage to the legendary country singer who rose to the top of the charts. The subject is the same, and the plays share songs, but the perspective is quite different.

"When Dick O'Neill was doing Always at Southern Rep, he called me and said, `You have got to do A Closer Walk," said director Lori Bennett (who also is North Star's artistic director). "It's a great show, and we're just thrilled by our audiences' reactions to it."

The play by Dean Regan is quite simple in format and staging. A WINC disc jockey in Winchester, Va., takes us through Patsy Cline's career milestones, which serve to introduce her next set of songs. As the deejay, Michael Bennett treats the star of the show with compassion and respect and provides several belly laughs with a few moments of shtick before Patsy makes her appearance. Well-known for his ability to play several roles in a production (he and Ricky Graham defined the quick-change show Greater Tuna for area theatergoers on many occasions), Michael's other roles include onstage comics at the Grand Ol' Opry, in Las Vegas and at Carnegie Hall.

But the star of the evening is Patsy, and Mari Vigueira simply dazzles with an onstage personality that is, like Patsy was, simultaneously down-home girl and accomplished songstress. Viqueira's vocal talents are exceptional, and she virtually becomes Patsy Cline. From her opening "Come on In, Sit Right Down" to the closing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," Patsy is alive again and just as wonderful as ever.

Backing up Vigueira is an excellent quartet that performs in real life as the InstaGators: Jan Clements, Jim Breland, Dwight Breland and Ed Vigueira (Mari's husband). They also provide a little "on air" entertainment in the form of several nostalgic radio commercials, which also had many heads nodding in acknowledgment.

But no matter how amusing the incidental comedy and music, the focus immediately jumps to Vigueira and her spectacular voice whenever she took the spotlight. Even those of us who normally can't quite abide country music found our legs involuntarily tapping in tempo as the familiar tunes filled the theater's charming hall (which is wonderfully reminiscent of those great old New England barn theaters). But then again, Patsy was one of the first country stars to effortlessly -- if not intentionally -- cross over to the pop charts as well, and, like her music, this production has an appeal that reaches more than country music enthusiasts.

A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline features a simple but effective set with complementary lighting. The sound is well-balanced so that Vigueira's vocals are not drowned out despite her close proximity to the band. Special mention should be made of Becky Yerdon's costume design, which necessitated a score of changes for Vigueira's character. Yerdon's creations ranged from a simple country girl's audition clothes to an elegant gown for a Carnegie Hall appearance, plus a few changes for Bennett. Even the band changed into countrified evening wear for the second act.

Patsy Cline's untimely death in a plane crash cut short an aspiring career and created an instant legend. At the North Star Theatre, she lives again. So venture to the Northshore and see her perform once more. It's more than worth the drive.

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