Julia Kay Laskowski has played Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus, Olympia in Tales of Hoffmann, Gilda in Rigoletto, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and Micaela in Carmen -- which is why her next role is surprising. The classically trained opera singer will play the part of Patsy Cline in Always...Patsy Cline, a one-act play opening this weekend at Stages Repertory Theatre.
Laskowski took the role because she's a longtime fan of the country singer. "Years ago," she says, "I was at opera camp in Aspen, Colorado, and I had this boyfriend who introduced me to Patsy Cline. She was really big in Europe. The hip thing to do was to listen to Patsy, this country singer from the '50s and '60s. He gave me one of her CDs, and I started playing it. I had never heard anybody sing with so much emotion. And instead of listening to the arias I was supposed to be listening to, I was listening to 'Sweet Dreams' and 'Faded Love.' "
Always Patsy Cline, which was written by Stages founding artistic director Ted Swindley, had its world premiere at Stages in 1988. Now the popular work has been performed around the world. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Stages is putting on the play again.
The work tells the true story of Patsy Cline's relationship with a Houston fan, which lasted until Cline's death in a plane crash at age 30. Laskowski, who seems to identify with Cline and refers to her character as "I," explains the show's concept. "It's mostly about my life on stage," she says, "and so Louise, the fan, tells about my career, and her first memory of me singing on the radio. And then I come to Houston to the Embassy Ballroom, this little honky-tonk joint. She finds out I'm in town and comes to the joint. She meets me, and we end up hanging out and being pals."
In the play, Louise Seger, played by Susan O. Koozin (who also played Mae West in the recent Stages production Dirty Blonde), chats and reads from letters between the two women; and Laskowski sings all the Patsy Cline favorites, such as "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces" and "Walking After Midnight." Her character has very little dialogue. "I'm mostly on stage saying stuff like, 'Howdy everybody, good to see you,' " she says.
By all accounts Laskowski can do a very good Patsy Cline. "Her portrayal is an almost dead-on sound for Patsy," says director Jimmy Phillips. Laskowski herself admits as much. "I'm an operatic soprano," she says, "but for some reason I can sing like her. At parties people say, 'Oh, sing Patsy Cline.' I kind of came close before. Now I'm trying to get crystal-clear close, as close as I can get without killing myself. There's a reason why she's a legend. She's not easy to imitate."
The role excites Laskowski, but it's also nerve-racking. "I have to be this country legend," she says, "this person that everybody knows and has high expectations of the sound of the voice and the persona. If I don't come pretty damn close to that, it's really scary. But I think I can pull it off. I love her so much I want to bring her back. She's like nobody else I've ever heard."