Joltin' Jim (Sean Moulson), left, gave Patsy Cline (Zenia Zambrano) her first break. They portray this early part of Cline's life story as deejay Little Big Man (Lance Bateman) narrates from the desk of his radio show in the Manoa Valley Theatre production of "A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline."

Humble Cline tribute
takes simple stroll

"A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline":Runs 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 22 at Manoa Valley Theatre. General admission $30. Call 988-6131.

Review by John Berger

There are a couple of reasons to approach Manoa Valley Theatre's "A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline" with skepticism. First, it's a "tribute show" that consists primarily of songs popular with baby boomers, with just enough of a story line to string the songs together.

Plus it's specifically about country music and southern folks, neither of which tend to fare well as theater.

Well, relax, country music fans! Zenia Zambrano does an outstanding job in the title role, and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a musical device called a MIDI EVI, musical director David Mark Minasian and his musicians succeed in capturing the ambiance of Cline's country/pop hits. Minasian uses the MIDI EVI to recreate the country fiddle and whatever else is needed while Lou Benanto (bass), Fred Oshiro (guitar), Keoki Van Orden (drums) and Emmett Yoshioka (acoustic piano) provide live instrumentation.

The premise is thin but serviceable: The date is March 5, 1963. A small-town radio station DJ named Little Big Man (Lance Bateman) has decided to dedicate his show to Patsy Cline -- who is, as he speaks, alive and well and flying home from the Midwest in a small plane with two other country music stars, Cowboy Copus and Hawkshaw Hawkins. As Little Big Man spins the platters he shares the story of Cline's career, from her hardscrabble beginnings as Virginia Patterson Hensley to her country and pop stardom.

Zambrano appears first as Little Big Man tells listeners how spunky young Virginia got her first break by daring the host of a local radio show to let her sing a song -- then dared him to let her sing another. Zambrano establishes her credibility -- and voice -- with those first two songs, "Come on In (And Make Yourself At Home)" and "Your Cheatin' Heart." Thanks to Greg Howell (hair/makeup) and Athena Espania (costumes), Zambrano appears to age from ambitious teenager to adult star through the songs that follow.

Soul Moulson steps out early as the guy who gave young Virginia her first break. Scott Moura (Opry Comic), Gordon Ing (Vegas Comic) and Eric Richards (Carnegie Comic) are the appallingly bad comedians who opened for Cline later in her career. (How bad were they? So bad that they practically beg to be heckled off the stage.) Moura, Ing and Richards are appropriately and intentionally awful.

However, if playwright Dean Regan inserted these three characters for any reason other than to stretch the running time of the show, it isn't evident.

Bateman does double-duty as a member of the male quintet that backs Zambrano on many of her numbers. Those five vocalists mesh well and do an excellent job backing Zambrano. As a quartet (less Bateman) they are entertaining singing commercial jingles as part of the Little Big Man radio show. It seems doubtful that American stations were still using live jingle singers in 1963, but the jingles work well as comic bits.

MVT house manager Chuck Anctil is heard but not seen as record producer Owen Bradley, the man who launched Cline as a star on the country and pop charts with "Walkin' After Midnight" in 1957.

Little Big Man's news and sports reports add to the sense of time and place, but beyond that playwright Regan doesn't tell us much about Cline's life. We learn that her first husband, Gerald Cline, filed for divorce, but not why. We learn that she and her second husband, Charlie Dick, had a stormy but loving marriage, and that they had two children. We learn that she preferred country to anything she considered pop, and that she agreed to record "Walkin' After Midnight" only if she could choose the "B side" -- "A Poor Man's Roses (Or A Rich Man's Gold)." But the fact that Cline's choice also was popular with her country fans isn't included in the show.

On the other hand, her biggest hits -- "She's Got You," "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy" -- were almost as much pop as they were country. How did she feel about that? Perhaps it's unreasonable to ask the playwright or the show to do more than celebrate Cline's musical legacy, and with Zambrano as Patsy Cline the MVT production does an excellent job.

Zambrano is excellent vocally and also in suggesting Cline's growth as an artist. Veteran director Jim Hutchison is at the top of his game in drawing all the components together. Lloyd S. Riford III (set and lighting design) has created a relatively simple but thoroughly effective environment, and Jason Taglinetti (sound) ensures that Zambrano, her men and the musicians have the technical support they need to do justice to the music.

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