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Crazy for Patsy

Rainbow Stage opens 60th season with celebration of legendary country voice

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A year ago Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story was a hold-over hit for Rainbow Stage but the real story was buried deeper in the attendance figures.

Of the 13,867 patrons who gathered under the dome in Kildonan Park last June to see the Holly tribute show, 53 per cent were newcomers to Winnipeg's summer theatre institution, according to the company's tracking system.

"We wound up with a whole new segment of audience," says artistic director Ray Hogg. "Ticket sales for Buddy was great. We're hoping for a repeat this year."

Rainbow launches its 60th anniversary season Thursday with another jukebox musical. Curiously, it's about another Decca Records singing icon whose fans thought the music died the day in 1963 she was killed in a plane crash.

A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline celebrates the early '60s American country singer, who before her demise at the age of 30 had big hits with the songs Walkin' After Midnight, Crazy and I Fall to Pieces.

There is a spate of Cline bio-revues -- including Always... Patsy Cline, which was presented at the RMTC Warehouse last month -- but Hogg sought some CanCon in his milestone playbill and chose one written by Vancouver's Dean Regan in 1991.

His decision was made easier by having a singer who he knew could do justice to Cline's legendary voice. Natasha O'Brien, a Toronto-born performer, was part of the Buddy ensemble, and had played the title role in A Closer Walk at Thunder Bay's Magnus Theatre in 2012.

"Patsy was five-foot-five, brown eyes, brunette, under 30, had a wide vocal range and a hell of a yodel," says director Carson Nattrass, about his casting choice. "All of that also describes Natasha O'Brien. There were a lot of great applicants for the role. But there simply wasn't another person who fit all those criteria."

In Closer Walk, a loquacious Virginia radio station DJ narrates Cline's rise from singing in low-rent honky-tonks and drive-ins to the venerable Grand Ole Opry, Carnegie Hall and the Country Music Hall of Fame, where in 1973 she became the first female solo artist inducted. O'Brien will sing 21 tunes from Cline's modestly sized repertoire, and that's a lot of Patsy for any vocalist.

Cline's contralto was one of a kind, made distinctive by the effects of rheumatic fever on her throat when she was 13. She was capable of growling or purring, vaulting octaves with ease.

"Her Lovesick Blues is all yodels," says the dark-haired 28-year-old O'Brien, who possesses a passing resemblance to The Cline, as she often referred to herself. "It's very technically challenging to sing. I had to throw all the singing rules out the window. You have to dig deep in your chest for the bottom note and then pop up to the top note. You have to have faith that you will land it."

Cline was a natural in front of the microphone in tone, timbre and timing. That's in spite of being unable to read sheet music and never knowing what key she was in. She learned everything by ear. O'Brien did the same, listening intently to each Cline song with her headphones on and lyrics in front of her, making note of every nuance.

"It's almost impossible to notate how she sang," says O'Brien during an interview in the empty theatre this week. "You'll never be able to capture that on a piece of paper."

O'Brien played up the high road taken by Closer Walk, which avoids muckraking through Cline's personal life -- the stuff of her hurtin' songs. Cline -- born Virginia Patterson Hemsley in Virginia -- grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, was abandoned by her father and her first husband demanded she give up singing. Then there was the 1961 car accident, when she was thrown through the windshield.

Cline was also financially harmed by shady record label accounting. Her lifetime royalties for Walkin' After Midnight amounted to less than $900.

"This show is a celebration of who Patsy Cline is all about as a performer," she says. "What's also great about the show is that we're not singing from the diary of Patsy Cline. She wasn't on stage at the Grand Ole Opry talking about her divorce. It's not what a lady would do at the time."

The fun factor for any prospective Patsy is getting to dress up like a cowgirl. It's especially yee-haw time when O'Brien dons Cline's trademark red fringed number that comes with white boots and hat.

"I love every single one of the costumes," says O'Brien. They are going to have to pry them out of my hands by the end of the run. You get on that dress and hat and it's here we go -- let's have a hoedown."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2014 C7


Updated on Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 11:53 AM CDT: Changes prices in the sidebar

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