Polished Patsy

It's tempting to say that the best part of Ted Swindley's Always...Patsy Cline is the music. The show is jammed with tunes made famous by the unforgettable Cline, one of Nashville's all-time greats. Her heartbreaking hits include "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Crazy" and the utterly gorgeous "Sweet Dreams"; all appear in Swindley's little play about a hometown fan who remembers one fabulous night she spent with the country star. Not only are the tunes great, but Julia Kay Laskowski, who plays the down-home country star in the revival playing at Stages Repertory Theatre, sings with a smoky, dark, Patsy Cline sound-alike voice if ever there was one. Yes indeed, listening to this music, coming from that voice, live and up close, in the intimate elbow-to-elbow setting offered at Stages, is simply delicious.

But as good as the tunes and the voice and the backup band are, they don't hold a candle to the firecracker energy flaming off Susan O. Koozin. Playing Louise Seger, Patsy Cline's real-life fan extraordinaire, Koozin burns through her hysterical performance like a woman on fire, turning Swindley's simple confection into a spicy summer romp of hand-clappin', foot-stompin', hootin', hollerin', Texas-sized laughs that shouldn't be missed by anyone who admires those Lone Star ladies of the big hair-big heart variety.

We meet Louise in her own kitchen, at her lemon-yellow Formica table, where she spends hours lingering over coffee, smoking cigarettes and gossiping. Wearing a chenille robe and a tent of toilet paper around her tall nest of brown curls, she ambles in, then proceeds to unwrap her head as she sits down to talk. From the get-go, Koozin makes Louise's sweet story feel like a wonderful secret and like everyone in the audience is her new best friend. She turns her head sideways and winks at us, then grins with a wickedly conspiratorial curl to her lip. "A secret's no fun unless you tell someone," says Louise. Then she launches into the juicy details of the night she met Ms. Cline.

Her tale takes us back a bit, to the days when acre-sized honky-tonks hunkered down alongside lonely stretches of flat Texas highway. In 1961 Patsy Cline came to Houston to play at the Esquire Ballroom on Hempstead Highway. Of course, Louise was a fan long before that fateful night. She tells all about the first time she heard Patsy Cline singing on Arthur Godfrey's television show in January 1957, and how Cline sang the way Louise herself "always wanted to sing."

Louise was the shameless sort of adoring fan who'd call up radio stations endlessly to request favorite songs. In fact, Hal Harris, who worked the morning show at a local country station, got to know Louise so well that he'd call her by name whenever she'd ring up the station. He "thought I was wacky," she says. But he let her know that Cline was coming to town, before the singer turned into the legend we all know.

Among Louise's many charms is her ability to tell a joke; even the creaky ones make us laugh out loud. She turns to a woman in the audience at one point and asks, "Is that your second husband, 'cause he wouldn't be my first choice, either."

Of course, Louise's comic timing is shared by Koozin, who makes the most of her audience interaction, including dancing with a man from the crowd. The fellow pulled from his seat on opening night giggled so much he could barely keep up. But when he spun Koozin unexpectedly, she wisecracked her way through the clumsiness by saying, "Oh, so you're getting fancy on me!" The audience howled. She also does well with the more tender moments. Cline and Louise discuss men and loneliness. This dialogue is rendered in a strangely successful splicing together of song and monologue. Of course Cline sings most of her stories, while Louise prattles on in her healthy Texas twang.

Full of down-home charm, Koozin's Louise is the kind of woman who can make a friend out of anyone, even Patsy Cline herself. In real life, the singer was apparently so charmed by Louise that she made fast buddies with her during her one Houston show. The play is based on the memories of that evening and the friendship that Louise Seger and Cline maintained through letters, until the star's death in a plane crash in 1963.

Ted Swindley, founding artistic director of Stages, wrote the play for the theater in 1988. The sweet bauble of a show has enjoyed success since then, having played all over the country. But there's something special about hearing a hometown story, especially when it's rendered with such joyful energy. Director Jimmy Phillips has established a fine balance between Cline and Louise. The singer plays straight man to Koozin's clowning. And Laskowski, with her impressive pipes, does well by those unforgettable tunes. But of course in this show the music, important as it is, plays second fiddle. Louise lets us know that, in her story, the fans are the best part of stardom.

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Lee Williams