Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Making a Strong Impression

By Hadley Hury

AUGUST 25, 1997:  Director Michael Detroit, a talented and appealing cast, and a really smooth onstage band make the current production of A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline a solid hit for Playhouse on the Square. Memphis theatregoers who may feel only lukewarm about taking in a revue featuring the high points of the legendary country singer's career, and more than 20 of her hit songs, will come away well-entertained and, quite likely, with an expanded appreciation of Cline. And anyone who stays away out of a critical suspicion that shows like these are automatically doomed to a generic level approximating, say, Elvis impersonations, will be cheating themselves out of a surprisingly fresh and vivid evening in the theatre.

The Playhouse production is an amalgam of two versions of A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline by Dean Regan and an expanded version of the show called Patsy! A World Premiere Tribute.

Just about everything goes right with Detroit's production -- starting with his decision to cast Renee Kemper as Patsy Cline. Thirty-nine women auditioned for the role. Many, according to the director, were strong candidates, and among them were one who was more a lookalike for Cline and one whose voice seemed a closer copy. But Detroit went with his instincts, casting Kemper, who has never before played a lead role, because he felt she would come most fully to inhabit the Cline persona.

She does, remarkably. It's no simple feat to create a credible impression of such a distinctive and widely known voice, and it's even tougher to sustain that impression over the course of two hours and more than 20 songs. Kemper's musical education serves her well. (She has a degree in piano performance, is completing a graduate degree, and is musical director for Forever Plaid, which opens this week and will run in repertory with Patsy Cline.) Not only does Kemper closely approximate the power of Cline's chesty vocals, she manages to evince the singer's emotional investment in her songs, her enthusiasm, and her sense of humor as well. Cline fans in the Playhouse audience are moved by a sense of genuine nostalgia, and even the uninitiated may come to understand why Cline -- at her untimely death at age 30, in a 1963 plane crash -- was enjoying an unprecedented crossover popularity atop both country and pop charts. Kemper meets the difficult challenge of creating a fine impression of a famous singer singing signature songs, and that is an achievement in itself. But the even greater accomplishment is that she has not been satisfied with doing so simply by careful mimicry. The performance has a life of its own. Kemper seems not to have used getting a strong vocal impression as the end measure of her work on the role, but as the beginning point of inhabiting a real character and letting her own natural musicianship and joy in singing (trademarks of Cline herself) really rip.

Although Kemper's role is the strong central focus of the show, the rest of the cast provides necessary strength, shading, and support. Michael Paul Duggan takes on three personae: Little Big Man, the Winchester, Virginia, deejay who serves as a folksy, hometown narrator for the script's gloss of several turning-point moments in Cline's career; Cousin Melvin, a country-bumpkin stand-up comedy act at various country music venues; and a grade-D, Jackie Gleasonesque nightclub comic who opens Cline's first engagement in Las Vegas. Duggan's performance, especially as the yokel clown Melvin, is outlandish, outrageous, shameless -- and absolutely hilarious. In fact, it's so silly and funny that it's deceptive. Every time you think the actor may be losing control, letting things broaden out too much, Duggan will give Melvin's corny shtick a deft reading that elegantly snaps a joke like a Venus flytrap or produce a daring bit of timing that nails a laugh from the audience. Duggan's stage presence is an unusual combination of spirited innocence and audacious technique. His delight in performing suggests the natural impulses of a little boy showing off in some neighborhood production in his garage, except that behind the open-faced glee there's also an unpredictable mischief and a seasoned capacity for shrewdly working a room. Whatever it is, Duggan makes something nearly brilliant of Melvin's foolishness -- especially his anecdotal impersonations of his dragon wife down home, Hester Sue.

Also fine as the Jordanaires -- who backed up Cline as well as Elvis -- are Michael P. Hoots, Steven M. Schroder, Kevin Smith, and Patrick Alan Kearns. The crisp and energetic music direction for the production is by Ernie Scarbrough, who is also pianist for the onstage band, which includes Eric Lewis, Ted Partin, Jon Mentgen, and Kimberly Trammell. The sound design and engineering, lighting and scenic design, and costumes -- by Gary D. Bower, Stacey A. Hamrick, Frank Foster, and Richelle Harrington, respectively -- are also good. The amplification for the entire show, though, needs to be lowered, just slightly. Detroit and his cast are delivering the goods; their A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline has discipline, joy, and vigor -- it pops right off the stage. They needn't fear that by taking those mikes down just a touch they're going to lose their audience.

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