If you like classic country music but are on the fence about dropping in on Playhouse on the Square's A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, do yourself a favor and go. Renee Kemper sounds just like Patsy, the band is hot, and the comedy is groaner-ific. It's great entertainment, even if it's not very good theater.
I've never quite been able to decide if A Closer Walk — a certifiably hokey tribute to the beloved singer — is too ambitious or not ambitious enough. It tries to be many things at once: a biography, a remembrance, a musical revue, and a showcase for stand-up comedy. It also tries to recreate the feel of concerts in venues ranging from gut-bucket bars to the Grand Ole Opry, Las Vegas, and Carnegie Hall. But really, it only succeeds in reminding viewers of the one thing everybody already knows: Cline, whose life was cut tragically short when her plane crashed in the hills near Camden, Tennessee, was a powerful singer who left behind a gorgeous, vastly influential body of work.
A Closer Walk documents Cline's rise to stardom. Dropping bits of trivia along the way, it never seriously considers her importance in the evolution of country music, which, in spite of the occasional solo hit by yodeling cowgirls like Patsy Montana, was almost exclusively a boy's club until the mid 1950s, when artists like Cline, Kitty Wells, Jean Shepard, and Skeeter Davis all became consistent hit-makers. Husky-voiced and independent, Cline was an inspiration to aspiring artists like Loretta Lynn. Her unique ability to appeal to audiences who usually weren't inclined to listen to country music increased the genre's fan base in ways unseen since Tony Bennett covered Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" in 1951.
Cline had a larger-than-life personality and more than enough drama in her private life to build a solid play around. But A Closer Walk is a study in two dimensions, with almost no interaction between the characters onstage. Instead the story, such as it is, is told through narration, with an emphasis on struggling, singing, and praising the Lord. In other words, it's the very definition of claptrap. The good news is that it never pretends to be much more than what it is: an excuse to put some great songs on stage.
John Hemphill takes on several roles. He's effective, if never especially interesting as country deejay Little Big Man but excels as the show's wisecracking Las Vegas lounge lizard and really comes alive as a motley hayseed comedian modeled after Minnie Pearl's sometimes sparring partner Rod Brasfield. Kemper's not an especially strong actor, but she gets the job done and her voice is a revelation, especially on more dramatic pieces by top-shelf songwriters like Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, and Don Gibson. Her powerhouse run through the posthumously released "Sweet Dreams" doesn't just pay tribute to the original, it rivals it and is, without question, the most beautiful sound I've heard on a Memphis stage all year. But sonically speaking, this show's most exciting (and harmonious) moments belong to Kyle Blair, Ben Laxton, Nick Mason, and John Koski, standing in for the Jordanaires.
Near the end, after Patsy's death has been tearfully announced, Hemphill, as Little Big Man, says a prayer and tells God one of his best angels is on the way. Moments later, the back wall opens up, light blasts out at the audience, and Kemper is flown in with the aid of a wire and a long black plank: a literal Patsy ex machina. The effect is stunning even if the image is literal to the point of silliness. She might as well be wearing wings and carrying a harp.
The marketing materials for A Closer Walk describe it as the "perfect small-cast musical" with minimal technical requirements. It arrives as described, and other than the angel effect, lighting and scenic design is minimal. It's a good example of how little is required when you've got good performers and good material. And Patsy Cline's greatest hits are just about as good as it gets.
At least one technical issue merits a mention. The sound mix was a mess. When dialogue took place over music, it was unintelligible. But let's be honest. It's not very interesting dialogue, and besides, if you're going to see A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, talking is probably the last thing on your mind. As it should be.
Through June 3rd