AUTHOR: HYNUM

HED:Musical tribute invites fans to take A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline'

By Rick Hynum

Daily Journal

It's tough enough to capture the essence of the inimitable Patsy Cline and her legendary music in a small-budget stage production.

Put Cline's husband and one of the original Jordanaires in the audience, and the task becomes downright daunting.

That's the challenge faced by director Michael Detroit and his cast of performers as they prepare to stage "A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline" beginning next Friday at the Playhouse on the Square in Memphis.

"A Closer Walk," a musical showcasing Cline's immortal hit songs and vignettes of significant moments in her life, is expected to draw enthusiastic crowds of Cline devotees during its Aug. 8-Sept. 21 run.

"This show sells out everywhere it goes," Detroit said.

But opening night will be the big test for the Memphis troupe.

With Nashville just up the road, Detroit and executive producer Jackie Nichols took the plunge and invited Charlie Dick, Cline's husband, and Jordanaire Gordon Stoker, who still performs with a version of the group that earned its fame backing Cline as well as the King himself, Elvis Presley.

"We're very excited, nervous, all of that," Detroit said. "Subscriptions (to the Playhouse season) are going through the roof because of this show."

Cast member Michael Hoots, a Smithville native and graduate of Hatley High School, said he's heard rumors of other big-name country music figures coming to the show.

"Stoker's saying he's going to bring some of his friends, (including) Chet Atkins and Loretta Lynn," said Hoots, who sings second tenor with the stage version of the Jordanaires. "Maybe he will, maybe he won't. Who knows?"

Talk about pre-show buzz. But, wait. It gets even better.

"It's also kind of ironic and fortuitous that the show is running before the week of the anniversary of Elvis' death," Nichols said. "We didn't actually plan it that way, but we're glad that it worked out. We think that's going to generate a lot of interest, too."

Scenes from a life

Fans who still fall to pieces at the sound of Cline's classic songs may want to bring an extra hanky for "A Closer Walk," which has been performed in Branson, Mo., Toronto and a few other cities since 1994.

"This is one of those shows where, if we do our job correctly, people will be choking up before the end," Detroit said.

From Cline's first radio appearance at the age of 14 to her triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall, the musical traces the influential singer's career via a fictional narrator, a radio DJ called Little Big Man (played by Michael Duggan, who also plays the Grand Ole Opry comic).

As Little Big Man guides the audience through the singer's life story, Cline (Renee Kemper) belts out classics like "I Fall To Pieces," "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams" and "Walking After Midnight."

"Our show takes very specific moments out of Patsy's life and recreates it on-stage," Detroit said. "You get a broader view of her career, from her first performance on radio, to the Grand Ole Opry, Vegas, Carnegie Hall."

The Cline essence

Meanwhile, the Jordanaires (played by Hoots, Patrick Kearns, Steve Schroder and Kevin Smith) join Cline on-stage at times and perform rousing gospel numbers between scenes.

"It's very exciting. It really keeps your attention," said Hoots, a professional actor and theater teacher at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis. "I love the whole thing from beginning to end."

Vital to the show's success, Detroit said, will be lead actress Kemper's ability to nail down that elusive Cline persona.

"We weren't looking for someone who sounded or looked exactly like Patsy," Detroit said. "We were looking for someone who could capture her essence ... her attitude and, obviously, someone who could carry the singing.

"Renee doesn't look or sound like (Patsy), but she sure has that fireball, don't-screw-with-me attitude. This is a tribute to Patsy Cline anyway, not an impersonation."

The unique production is typical of the adventurous fare offered at Playhouse on the Square, executive producer Nichols said. "We do a lot of different kinds of work here, whether it's unknown musicals or mainstream things. This is the first time (the Cline tribute) has been done here. We're getting a lot of calls on it."

What: "A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline"

When: Aug. 8-Sept. 21. Exact showtimes and dates are as follows: Aug. 8-22: 8 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays, and 2 p.m., Sundays; after Aug. 22, showtimes are 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturdays, and 2 p.m., Sundays.

Where: Playhouse on the Square, 51 S. Cooper, Memphis

Tickets: $22 for evening performances and $20 for matinees.

Package deal: The theater also offers groups of 40 or more a charter bus package deal for $70, which includes transportation, play tickets, hotel accommodations and tickets to the Titanic exhibit.

For more information: Call (901) 726-4656

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