Performing Arts

‘Patsy Cline’ launches a Fort Lauderdale theater with heart and joy

She was an impressive, influential country music superstar. Yet in so many ways, Patsy Cline’s life was a country song.

Born to a 16-year-old mom and much older dad, Cline knew struggle after her father abandoned the family. She was married, divorced, then wound up in a second marriage that was tempestuous at best. She was a tough, detail-oriented artist in a music genre dominated by men. She was in a serious car crash and survived. She was in a terrible plane crash and did not.

Patsy Cline’s life ended in 1963, at the age of 30. But her impactful musical legacy lives on, and it’s that rich body of work that is the heart and soul of Always ... Patsy Cline.

Ted Swindley’s intimate, funny, touching musical play is the first production by Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre in its brand-new home at The Vanguard, a beautifully restored 1939 church building the company calls “a sanctuary for the arts.”

The show is a departure from Thinking Cap’s headier, more provocative fare, but artistic director Nicole Stodard intends to program the space with all kinds of work. This one, so full of affection and nostalgia, is just right for a theatrical housewarming.

Swindley’s piece focuses on a real night in 1961 when Cline, performing at a “honky tonk” near Houston, met Louise Seger, a divorced mother of two and one of Cline’s most devoted fans. How devoted? Seger would call her local radio station every day, sometimes multiple times, asking — no, demanding — that the disc jockey play Cline’s recording of I Fall to Pieces. And he always did.

So when her idol came to Texas, where else would Seger be? She and her pals arrived early, as did the singer, and the women met. The down-to-earth Cline, who was traveling alone, joined Seger and her pals at their table, talked, had a beer, then sang a couple of sets.

At the end of the evening, Seger invited Cline to spend the night at her house instead of staying at a hotel, and the singer said yes. The two had a late-night “breakfast,” talked until the wee hours, and the singer grabbed a little shuteye. Then Seger took Cline to her radio station for an interview that was a surprise even to the disc jockey. She delivered Cline to the airport and never saw her again, but the two kept a friendship going through letters and phone calls until tragedy claimed Cline’s life.

That’s the framework for Always ... Patsy Cline, but it doesn’t communicate the warmth, humor or musical strength of Thinking Cap’s production, which stars Ann Marie Olson as Cline and Sally Bondi as Seger.

Olson, a Carbonell Award nominee as best actress in a musical for her performance in Slow Burn Theatre’s Parade, brings deep emotion and a sadder-but-wiser elegance to her portrayal of Cline. Singing 27 of the country star’s songs, the actress finds the expressive ache in her own voice as the music roams from wistfulness to upbeat joy to heartache.

Among the show’s (and Olson’s) gems are Walkin’ After Midnight, I Fall to Pieces, Your Cheatin’ Heart, Sweet Dreams, Crazy and Faded Love. Hearing that music sung so well in such an intimate space is a real treat.

Bondi is, as they might say in Texas, a pistol. Her Louise is the enthusiastic engine of the show, an unabashed fan gal whose narration artfully fills in the details of her idol’s story. Bondi is charged with getting the audience to share Louise’s enthusiasm, through a few singalong moments and one dance with a “volunteer,” and don’t think she won’t call you out. She’s a steamroller, in a good way.

Cline’s hits are played live by musical director Andy Gilbert on the keyboard, Gabriel Godoy on bass, Dave O’Brien on steel guitar, Katy Sharf on fiddle and Nick Trotogott on drums. The musicians aren’t just accompanying Olson’s rich singing. They’re painting with sound and feeling, letting Olson complete the picture.

In addition to staging the show, Stodard has designed the costumes, which range from cowgirl country to ‘60s chic cocktail attire for Cline, and a real yellow rose of Texas getup for Seger. The set by Alyiece Moretto provides a performance space for the singer and band, as well as a humble-but-homey abode for Seger. Eric Nelson’s lighting design artfully puts the lost country superstar in the spotlight when she sings.

Always ... Patsy Cline, the first Vanguard production, is likely to introduce new audiences to Thinking Cap, and it’s a joyous introduction. For Stodard and her company, the space is the realization of hope, faith and hard work — and, as Cline might put it, Sweet Dreams.

If you go

What: ‘Always … Patsy Cline’ by Ted Swindley.

Where: Thinking Cap Theatre production at The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday (additional show at 8 p.m. March 25), through March 29.

Cost: $37.22 (includes service charge).

Information: 813-220-1546 or www.vanguardarts.org.

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