Longtime friends and frequent co-stars Christa Jackson and Sally Struthers are again performing their hit show about two gal pals from an earlier era, Always”¦ Patsy Cline. Ted Swindley’s two-handed musical show will play for three weekends only, at Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton.
Always”¦ Patsy Cline is more than a tribute to the legendary country singer, who died at the age of 30 in a tragic plane crash in 1963. With Jackson taking on the role of Patsy Cline, the one-act show focuses on Cline’s real friendship with a fan from Houston named Louise Seger (Struthers), who befriended the star in a Texas honky-tonk bar in 1961 and maintained a close friendship and ongoing correspondence with Cline until her death.
The musical play presents 27 songs. Jackson performs many of Cline’s unforgettable hits such as “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams” and “Walking After Midnight.” The show’s title was inspired by Cline’s letters to Seger, which were consistently signed “Love always”¦ Patsy Cline.”
Now 41, Jackson began interpreting Cline’s life story when she was the same age as Cline at her death. Jackson is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, where she graduated from Northside School of the Arts. While there, she performed as one of the “Coke Is It Kids.” She has toured as a backup singer for Roger Daltrey, Ty Herndon and Erasure, and her theater credits include performing in Grease on Broadway and in national tours, along with Struthers, as well as appearing on Broadway in Smokey Joe’s Café. Regional credits include playing the lead role of Eva in Evita for Heartstrings Regional Theatre; Steel Magnolias (Truvy); Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical; Joseph (Narrator); Annie Get Your Gun (Annie); Seussical (Gertrude); Anything Goes (Erma) and other shows.
Becoming Patsy Cline.
It’s hard to imagine that this pretty, slim woman with blue eyes and corkscrew curly blonde hair can pass as the dark haired, unpretentious country and western singer. It takes more than period costumes, wigs and makeup
“I don’t impersonate Patsy,” Jackson smilingly assures me when we sit down for a chat before rehearsals. “It’s a total, physical transformation. I change the way my mouth is, I change my posture, the way I walk. Everything changes. As soon as I put that wig on, I say a prayer to her every night and I walk out there.” The actress says she simply tries to embody Patsy and give the impression of the kind of person she was.
“It’s a metamorphosis for me,” Jackson adds. “I put the black wig cap on and paint in the dark eyebrows. I do the makeup exactly the way she did, add red lips ““ which is so not me! I start when I’m putting on the wigs and the clothes and stockings ““ I have to add boobs because I have none,” she laughs. “Also Patsy had a slight under bite.”
Struthers interjects, “This is the biggest thing she does ““ she slides her jaw out when she sings and that makes her sound like Patsy. But she gives herself TMJ (inflammation of the temporomandibular joint). She had terrible pains one summer.”
Jackson remembers her concern that she was suffering from a brain aneurysm. “So every night after the show I’m applying heat packs and taking Advil. Every night.”
Plus there are numerous costume changes. “It’s almost like when I was doing Evita,” recalls Jackson. “I sing a song or two then do a costume change. I think there are 20 changes, and the quickest one is just before the encore. I have a great dresser.”
(Click here to listen to Christa sing “Walking After Midnight” in rehearsal.)
Christa and Sally.
Jackson explains, “Sally and I have been friends for a very long time, over 15 years ““ she’s like my second Mom.”
The pair first worked together in 1995, on the US national revival tour of Grease, when Struthers played Miss Lynch and Jackson understudied the lead role of Sandy and later took over as lead.
The two women have revisited Swindley’s bio-show seven times since they first appeared in it in 2001 at the Coronet Theatre, in Los Angeles. Additionally, Jackson performed one season of Always”¦ Patsy Cline minus Struthers, instead playing opposite Cissy King at the Welk Resort Theatre (Escondido, CA), in 2006.
Recalls Jackson, “The first time that I played it was 10 years ago. At the time, Sally referred me to the director and producer, saying the only person she knew that she would want to play this role was Christa. I went in and auditioned and I got it. Now, being 41 is different from being 31. I bring a little more to it now that I have matured into it, and with her.”
“This story is really about these two women and their friendship, their bond,” Jackson says. “Yes, we’re dealing with an icon with Patsy, and then there’s the true story about Louise and her life, but it’s really a story about two girlfriends. It’s about when you meet somebody and really hit it off, and how rare that is. Louise found a friend in Patsy, and Patsy found a true confidant in Louise. Even though she was a fan, she became a dear friend and a pen pal to her.”
While the story is told through Louise’s eyes, the musical play strikes a balance between the celebrity and her fan. Confirms Jackson, “The way it was written, and the way the songs are placed, the focus goes back and forth and swings from one character to the other.” Yet Louise remains the narrator of the piece. As Jackson points out, “Sally never leaves the stage, never changes costume ““ she works the entire show without a break. I sing, go change clothes, come back and sing, but the way they laid the songs out throughout her story, the focus is equal. We’re a team, and it’s pretty cool. I make people cry, she makes people laugh. It’s a good balance,” she adds, laughing.
Struthers as Director.
Struthers has directed Always”¦ Patsy Cline (with Jackson) three times previously — first at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine (2003), then at the Helen Hayes Theatre in Nyack, New York (2004), and also at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach (2004).
Jackson says she’s happy to revisit this role time and again. Dusting off the cobwebs come easy, even though the last time she performed the role was close to six years ago. On her friend and co-star as a director, Jackson remarks, “Sally’s great. We had our first day of rehearsal the other day ““ and we haven’t done this show together in seven or eight years. I sang through the music and then we sang through our stuff together and then we just started at the top and we ran the show!”
That left their stage manager, Nicole Wessel, scrambling to keep up and notate blocking.
Adds Struthers, “It feels like stepping into my favorite old pair of cowboy boots.”
“Things started coming back to us,” Jackson says. “I defer to her but it’s more of a collaboration.”
Directing the show is a breeze, Struthers says, given the pair’s familiarity with it. “With us, it’s kind of already “˜directed’, so in terms of needing to direct Christa ““ I don’t. She’s perfect. You don’t need to do anything except stand back and watch her blow people’s minds. The part of me that is still being utilized to direct this is that I chose all the pieces of the set and the spacing and the lighting. I will sit with the lighting designer and work out all the light cues. So that’s where I get to be creative, which I love.”
She adds, “I told them we were only going to need three days of rehearsal. First the scheduled three hours for Christa to go over Patsy’s songs. Then they wanted me to come in for three hours and we were supposed to work on music and then the next day we were going to work on scene work. Christa had done all her songs with the musical director and was twiddling her thumbs when I showed up. I said, “˜I’ve got three songs with Christa so let’s do ’em real quick.’ So we did it and that took about seven minutes.”
That’s when Struthers suggested they run the show. “She and I proceeded to do the whole show, top to bottom, in an hour and a half. I said I know we’re supposed to be here till seven but we’re done!”
But they’re certainly not operating on auto-pilot. Struthers adds, “I’ve done this character a lot but never once during any performance felt I could think about my grocery list. I totally get into it. We both do.”
Struthers performed her role more recently, two years ago in Fort Worth, Texas at Casa Manana, with a local co-star named Julie Johnson as Cline.
“When I did it at Casa Manana,” she says, “there was no way the director [Guy Stroman] was just gonna come in and let me do it the way I have always done it. He made me revisit every single moment and changed a few things. Some of those things I have retained but for other things I’ve gone back to my old ways.
The one thing that Stroman pointed out was that people empathize more with a character being brave than a character in tears. He advised Struthers that if she could hold the tears back, then the audience will cry. “That was a shift. Guy is a wonderful director.”
Revisiting these roles time and again.
Jackson says there’s no mystery to why she’s happy to play this role once again. “Patsy Cline has always been an idol of mine. I grew up singing her songs. I remember singing “˜Walking After Midnight’ when I was five years old. “˜Crazy’ ““ the same thing; I’ve been singing it all my life. I’ve studied what little video footage there is of her and then to see through Louise’s eyes what Patsy was to her ““ I love telling this story.
“The way I tell the story is through the songs. Of course, I do speak and converse with Louise, but this is an awesome love story about two girlfriends. It’s so much fun to go through that journey every night.”
“To sound absolutely egotistical,” adds Struthers, “and I don’t mean it that way, it’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to doing a one-woman show. In this, I’m only on paper playing one character, Louise Seger, who was a real woman and who passed away almost two years now. So I love to play someone who really walked the earth and isn’t a made-up character. But while I play Louise, I do Louise “˜doing’ her mother, Louise “˜doing’ her boss, her boyfriend, the manager of the Esquire Ballroom and even the operator and then the DJ at the radio station. I do all these voices and I love the challenge of coming up with different characters.” Struthers says these challenges keep her on her toes all night long.
Plus, the show is a series of monologues interspersed with song and Struthers says she works hard with pacing and physicality to maintain audience attention and keep the evening from turning into “”¦a drone. I’m always doing something insane to keep them watching and listening!”
It sounds like the kind of role in which Struthers can showcase the different facets of her comic abilities. Struthers concurs, adding, “It is, but in the end it is tragic and you see Louise’s broken heart and that’s palpable. When you see how much she adored, worshiped and loved Patsy and then you see her lost when she’s gone ““ it’s so sad!”
Jackson adds, “This is probably one of the only roles that I would do seven times, including Eva in Evita, which I loved doing. Thanks to Sally, this role put my name in LA, because I had been in NY until then.”
In 2001, in Variety’s review of the original production at the Coronet, Joel Hirschhorn posed the question, “˜Ted Swindley’s script never answers a basic question: Why did Louise Seger focus on this particular star?’
Struthers is almost speechless when I read her this quote. Clearly she doesn’t recall reading it. “It sounds as if he didn’t get the show at all,” she frowns. “It’s obvious, I think, in the show. Louise loved music. Her kids would watch the Arthur Godfrey show in the morning and she’d be doing the dishes in the sink and she’d hear people sing and she probably liked to sing along.”
Then, right in front of me, she vocally transforms, adopting a Texan accent. She takes on the persona of Louise by quoting some lines from the scene when her character first heard Cline on the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show” in 1957 and immediately fell in love with the singer’s voice.
“One morning, I was listening to that television when all of a sudden I heard this voice and it absolutely stopped me in my tracks and I said, my god! That sounds the way I have always wanted to sing! I went tearing into the living room and said kids, get outta my way and there on this TV was this little gal just leaning back and leading into a wonderful country song called “˜Walking After Midnight’ and I tell ya, I never heard a voice that impressed me so!”
Always”¦ Patsy Cline, produced by 3DTheatricals. Opens July 15. Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. (Sunday 7/24 at 2 pm & 7pm. Saturday 7/30 at 2 pm and 8 pm). Through July 31. Tickets: $28-56. Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton CA 92832. Visit www.3dtshows.com.