‘Closer Walk’ explores Cline’s short life, long strides in music
If you’ve been waiting for another chance to see of the most popular stage shows ever brought to Ellijay by local nonprofit Gilmer Arts, you are in luck. The musical “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline,” first produced here in 2001, is coming back to town Saturday, Feb. 6., 7:30 p.m., at the Ellijay Elementary School Auditorium.
“This is a musical that’s been performed all around the country for over 20 years with great songs and a great story. It’s got legs,” said John Rathbone, chairman of the Bringing Ellijay Sensational Talent – or B.E.S.T. – Series.
Despite her recording career lasting less than 10 years, Cline, who died at age 30 in a 1963 plane crash while en route to Nashville, carved a broad, influential path as a vocalist and performer during that time. “A Closer Walk,” written by Dean Regan and produced here by the touring company of Columbus, Ga., theater the Springer Opera House, follows the Virginia native’s rise from singing in honky tonks and beer joints to appearing on the hallowed stages of the Grand Ole Opry and Carnegie Hall.
“I’ve been listening to Patsy for as long as I can remember and it’s such an honor to celebrate her legacy with this show,” said cast member Sandia Ahlers, who portrays Cline. “She’s my grandmother’s favorite singer, so I think of her every time I perform.”
“One of the great things I think this play does is introduce audiences to some of Patsy’s earliest experiences, particularly when she was a just a young teenager walking into a radio station and announcing she was a singer and wanted to sing on the radio,” said director Paul Pierce.
Other characters who round out the cast include different versions of Cline’s supporting musicians and Little Big Man, a disc jockey from the singer’s hometown of Winchester, Va., who provides insight into pivotal moments from Cline’s life as they’re recreated onstage.
“WINC Radio in Winchester stayed very close to Patsy Cline through her entire career and she performed there first. Those were the days when radio stations had live audiences at their shows,” said Pierce. “Little Big Man is written to be a close friend, supporter and fan of Patsy in the telling of her story.”
Avid B.E.S.T. Series patrons will recognize both lead actress Ahlers and actor Russ Yoe, who appears as Little Big Man and two different comedians who share the stage with Cline, from the Springer production of “Della’s Diner” staged here last February.
Pierce and B.E.S.T. chairman John Rathbone both agree that the show appeals to established fans of Cline, as well as those just discovering her work.
“She was a really well-loved artist who came from a small town and eventually became a major national music star. Her life was cut short, of course, but it becomes a more impactful story with what could have been,” said Rathbone.
“This show has created so many new Patsy Cline fans, especially among young people who are just discovering the soul and spirit of this great American artist. I’ve seen people swear up and down that they don’t like country music and then head straight for the record store after they’ve seen (it),” said Pierce.
The subtle nuances of Cline’s singing style – an emotive mix of country and western, swing, jazz and Broadway torch songs styles – often triggers that newfound interest, the director confirmed.
“When she first appeared in Nashville, she just saw herself a country singer. When all these record producers heard her voice, they realized they had something much bigger. They were really trying to figure out if she was the next Elvis or the next Judy Garland,” said Pierce. “They had her trying out lots of different kinds of music, which she resisted at first. When she started getting hits, she finally admitted she was not the best judge of the songs she could be singing.”
The Ellijay audience will be treated to live performances of Cline’s signature songs with “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Always,” “Crazy,” “I Fall To Pieces,” “She’s Got You” and 17 others that appear in the two-act program. Pierce confirmed that A Closer Walk is one of only two stage productions based on Cline’s life to be approved by the late singer’s estate.
“I’ve worked with the Elvis estate, too, and that can be quite a challenge because these are families who want to protect the legacy of their loved ones and they don’t want anybody doing just any old thing,” Peirce said. “That’s why we’ve had to have our Patsys approved by (her) estate before we could even cast them. Charlie Dick, who was Patsy’s husband and who passed away recently, was the one who made that decision. From the beginning, he always loved our Patsys and had been very supportive of our version of the show.”
The play returns to Ellijay 15 years after it was first staged here as part of the 2001 B.E.S.T. lineup, which also included concerts by Ricky Skaggs and doo-wop vocal group Danny and the Juniors.
“It’s an easy (show) to enjoy. You go and then leave feeling better than when you went. For at least two hours, you can leave your troubles behind and just enjoy it.”
Another repeat B.E.S.T. Series headliner, traditional Irish music ensemble Cherish the Ladies, will revisit the Ellijay Elementary stage March 11 for the third entry in the 2015-16 performing arts series.
“I’ve also had a lot of requests to bring them back. This year’s series is reflective of what I guess you’d call ‘the hits,’” Rathbone said.