The opening-night audience of A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline gave its loudest, most enthusiastic ovation to a rip-roarin' rendition of Orange Blossom Special performed by an exceptional backup band prior to the country queen's second-half entrance.
It was all about the music -- anyone's music -- for those attending Thursday's kickoff of Rainbow Stage's 60th anniversary season, and that was a good thing, because that's all they got from this greatest hits concert, oversold as musical theatre. Canadian Dean Regan's paper-thin book is so inconsequential that it wouldn't be missed if the actors and musicians tossed it away. No one gets closer to Patsy Cline thanks to Regan, or gains any insight into her psyche or the events that would define her and fuel that fierce determination to become a female country-music trailblazer.
Cline's catalogue of hits is the undisputed star of this jukebox musical, fitting because her songs are the most played in jukeboxes all over the world. The 900 patrons out for a night of musical nostalgia under the dome were just as appreciative to hear bonus standards such as the Hank Williams classic Your Cheatin' Heart and Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Regan attempts to frame the songs as a two-hour hometown tribute by radio DJ Little Big Man of Virginia's WNIC, which traces Cline's rise from honky-tonk ingenue to Carnegie Hall headliner at the hallowed New York City venue's first country-music show. But Little Big Man contributes little other than spinning 45s and spouting superficial narrations like "this gal is quickly becoming the queen of country music." Actor Cory Wojcik's dependable comic talents are sorely wasted.
On the other side of the stage is another sound booth, where four young male vocalists sing the station's call letters and commercial jingles for Mr. Clean and Ajax, and that, as expected, struck a chord of recognition with older spectators. The clean-cut quartet butted out their ever-present cigarettes to double as Cline's backup singers, the Jordanaires, who most famously worked with Elvis Presley. Aaron Hutton, Simon Miron, Sam Plett and Markian Tarasiuk are fine singers who keep the concert rolling when set and costume changes are required. Their dance moves supply some movement to what is otherwise a static presentation.
The irony is that while Regan is downright stingy with any background information about Cline's climb to stardom in the 1950s and early '60s, he sees fit to resurrect the era's corny humour and anti-woman jokes as told by several standup comics. It amounted to lame filler.
In the absence of the real Cline, director Carson Nattrass has found a worthy Patsy clone in Natasha O'Brien, who has mastered the diva's sound and emotional vocal style. From the moment she takes to the stage cheerfully chirping the upbeat tune Come On In, it is obvious O'Brien is comfortable in Cline's white cowgirl boots. No matter whether she is befringed or bejeweled, O'Brien owns the stage and it's a pleasure to sit back and have a toe-tapping good time.
Nothing else is required of her dramatically but to stand and deliver country classics such as Crazy, Walkin' After Midnight and Sweet Dream. Thery were not all note-perfect, but her poised, upbeat portrayal fit the evening's mood.
Like Cline, O'Brien is generous in giving up the spotlight for impressive solos by band members.The six-member local band assembled by music director/pianist Andrew St. Hilaire polished the musical gems with fine fiddling from Kristina Bauch, tasty guitar licks from Kris Ulrich and sweet steel guitar work by Ron Halldorson.
Rainbow also debuted its new enhanced speaker system and there appears to be reason for optimism that the theatre may have solved its chronic sound problems.
That's good news for Rainbow patrons, but what might be better is that before the curtain, artistic director Ray Hogg announced that its 2015 season would consist of West Side Story, Les Miserables and the Winnipeg debut of Sister Act. That will certainly trigger debate as to whether that is Rainbow's best playbill ever.