Always . . . Patsy Cline is a honky-tonk treat with Firebrand | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Always . . . Patsy Cline is a honky-tonk treat with Firebrand

Harmony France and Christina Hall trade off the two roles in this warmhearted story based on real events.

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Since Firebrand's production of Always . . . Patsy Cline features its stars, Harmony France and Christina Hall, trading the roles of Cline and her Texas superfan, Louise Seger (whose correspondence sparked this 1988 bio musical by Ted Swindley), from show to show, you might consider this half a review. The night I attended, France played Patsy and Hall was Louise. But the chemistry between these two women (both have played Patsy in previous productions) is so strong and palpable that I imagine it's equally enjoyable when they flip. Add in musical director Andra Velis Simon's tight four-piece onstage band and Lauren Nichols's set, which transforms the Den's space into an intimate honky-tonk setting, and Firebrand's concept doesn't seem so "Crazy."

There are no earth-shattering revelations here, but the story of a small-town Virginia girl who achieved crossover fame from country to pop and the brassy Houston woman who took her home for a late-night breakfast after a 1961 show (and then became her pen pal until Cline's death in 1963) shines because Patsy and Louise truly do see themselves mirrored in the woman across that kitchen table. Failed marriages, worries about their young children, and a desire to hold their own in a male-dominated world (Louise works as an electronics technician, "because we can't all be hairdressers") creates empathy between them.

France's singing doesn't mimic Cline's warm style so much as make it her own in hits such as "Walkin' After Midnight" and "Faded Love." The arrangements felt a little slower, but no less stirring, from what I've heard on jukeboxes for decades, and Brigitte Ditmars's staging also gives us welcome breathing space to enjoy these two women finding solace in each other's company.  v Note: the performances after January 4 will feature France as Patsy and Firebrand founding member Danni Smith as Louise, a role she played to Hall's Patsy in the 2014 Theo Ubique production.

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