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A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE stars Melissa Leventhal’s delightful singing at Shea’s Smith through December 8

THE BASICS:   A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE, a musical by Dean Regan, presented by O’Connell & Co., directed by Drew McCabe, starring Melissa Leventhal and David Wysocki opened on November 29 and runs through December 8, Friday and Saturday at 8, Sun at 2 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street (1-800-745-3000) Runtime: 1 hour and 40 minutes with one intermission (full-service bar)

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is a small cast jukebox musical highlighting the career of Country & Western/ Pop crossover star Patsy Cline (sung by the spot-on Melissa Leventhal). There is no plotline forced onto the musical selections, so it’s neither JERSEY BOYS nor is it MAMMA MIA. It does use a “framing device” with a Disc Jockey named “Little Big Man” (played by David Wysocki) broadcasting from Virginia radio station WINC, on the morning of March 5, 1963, with a radio show featuring the recordings of his favorite singer. Basically, Wysocki introduces the songs, which are then presented two at a time, live on stage, broken up by various “oldie” commercials or corny (and in 2019 somewhat offensive) stand-up comedy bits as one might have heard at The Grand Ole Opry or in Las Vegas back in the 1960s (of the “my wife is so …” variety). Again, this was the early 1960s.

And then Patsy comes to the rescue, back out in yet another fabulous outfit (Smirna Mercedes, Costume Designer). All other creative elements aside, it comes down to the casting of Patsy Cline. If she’s “got it” you’ve got a show, and Melissa Leventhal has got it, the range, the styling, and the signature Patsy Cline emotional catch in the voice. I suspect that Patsy Cline has many new or renewed fans ever since Ken Burns’ 8-part story of Country Music was presented last month on PBS.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Note: this is not the same show as ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE produced at the Kavinoky Theatre several years ago about a friendship between the singer and a homemaker who was her penpal. But, like that show, this production is good for smaller theatrical companies in that it also only needs two performers – the singer Patsy Cline – and in this case someone to play the radio DJ and all of the other roles of emcee, comedians, announcers, etc. The set by Bill Baldwin was serviceable, with the musical director on-stage, two of his three musicians just visible opposite, and with a separate spotlighted area for the radio studio. Lighting played a key role in bringing the show to life, and Kimberly Pukay’s design worked well.

The band was good, but noticeably lacking in either one of the two staples of country – a pedal steel guitar or a fiddle – and, on opening night at least, the players seemed a little too focused on the sheet music in front of them. I’m sure they will get more comfortable as an ensemble with the opening night jitters behind them. Both Wysocki and Isgar tried their best as “The Jordanaires” (Patsy’s backup vocal group) but it’s hard to come up to the standards of a group that started as a gospel quartet in the 1940s and were, like Cline, a signature Nashville’s sound.

So in the end, as it had to, it came down to Melissa Leventhal. Having been so impressed by her beautiful voice in the less well known MOTHER JONES: IN HEAVEN AND HELL at the Subversive Theater two years ago, I was very much looking forward to this, and I was delighted to hear how Leventhal incorporated so many of the stylings of Patsy Cline.

For those new: Patsy Cline was born Virginia Patterson Hensley, on September 8, 1932, in Virginia. Her mother drove her to Nashville when she was only sixteen for her first Grand Ole Opry audition. Her first big break came with the song “Walkin’ After Midnight” on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show in 1957. She was invited to join Grand Ole Opry in 1960 and her career took her to Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall. Patsy Cline died in an airplane crash March 5, 1963.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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