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Patsy Cline tribute show undone by uneven sound

Posted 7:18am on Wednesday, May. 15, 2013

We didn’t come to hear the band.

Not that the five-piece ensemble backing Jenny Thurman in her star turn in A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, which opened at Theatre Arlington Friday, isn’t good. They’re great. But it would sure be a better show if we could hear Thurman as well as them.

This popular tribute to the late country singer has almost become a signature piece for Thurman, who has performed it a number of times. And the experience shows. She has a fabulous voice in any context. But she has never sounded closer to Cline than she does in this production (in those golden moments when you could actually hear her). She does an especially good job of imitating her subject’s phrasing. Kudos to her for continuing to study the role when she could easily phone it in and still get by.

But, even though Thurman has a big, beautiful voice, it doesn’t stand a chance against an amplified band. She was buried in the mix for most of the opening night performance. The band, led by music director and pianist Don Powers, either needs to be toned down, or Thurman’s voice needs to be boosted. This show is essentially a Patsy Cline concert. It is sprinkled with biographical tidbits, but there is no plot. So if the vocal line disappears, the whole show spirals down the drain behind it.

Although this musical revue is all about Cline, who died in a plane crash in 1963, there is another character. The role of “Little Big Man/Comic” is just a space filler. He is a radio announcer and, when the show moves to Vegas, a standup comedian. But he doesn’t matter. He is just there to give the actress playing Cline time to change her costume and catch her breath.

But somebody apparently forget to tell Shane Strawbridge, who plays the part, how insignificant his characters are. He infuses more life and interest into the role than I have seen in any other production of this show. He does a great job of delineating the various people arising in the part and makes a role that should be merely functional blossom into something highly entertaining.

There is not much for director Ben Phillips to do with this two-character, concert show. He certainly deserves some of the credit for making such good use of Strawbridge but, on opening night, there were a few spots that begged for improvement. In addition to the sound issues, Thurman’s overacting in the show’s opening moments really needs cleaning up. And there were some cues that could have been much tighter and smoother.

Also, this may fall at the feet of set designer Bob Lavallee, but it is hard to understand why the production would have either acquired or built a nice sign bearing Cline’s name, mounted it proudly in the center of the proscenium, and then covered most of it with speaker. What an apt, though unintentional, metaphor for the show in general.

There is plenty to enjoy about this production. All of Cline’s biggest hits are covered and covered well. Thurman and Strawbridge could hardly be better and the band is as tight as a new pair of boots. And Thurman’s outfits, by costume designer Ric Leal, are right on the money. So it is hoped that the sound balance will be improved so that future audiences won’t leave the theatre having heard only an evening of Patsy Cline instrumentals.

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