At some point during Liz Aiello’s years playing Patsy Cline, things took a weird turn.
Part-way through a run at one of the many venues across the country where she’s reprised her role as the beloved country singer, Aiello began to notice a fan returning night after night. Besides his repeat attendance in the theater’s front row, there was also his T-shirt bearing the image of the singer herself.
Then there was the request for an autographed photo. And finally, he wondered, could he have a kiss — from the woman playing the legend.
“It was as close as he could get to the real thing,” says Aiello, who does her own singing in the touring production.
Even as her expression acknowledges the obvious surreal nature of the encounter, Aiello understands that, for the singer’s devotees, her songs run as deep as her sweeping voice.
Cline’s fans “know that stuff,” Aiello declares. “You’re not going to pull that off if you don’t know the material.” In fact, pretty much everyone knows these songs, even if they don’t think they do. “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” — such sweet laments are buried deep inside the American musical consciousness.
The upcoming Always … Patsy Cline, to be staged at Asheville Community Theatre in partnership with Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre in Mars Hill, revives the classic tunes, celebrating them as well as the short and sometimes troubled life of the country pioneer. In tracing the everyday, behind-the-scenes life of Cline, the play finds a palette to showcase the songs that made her famous, weaving them into a narration by an unlikely friend.
In 1961, a fan named Louise Seger met and befriended Cline, and they kept up a pen-pal relationship until Cline’s death in a plane crash two years later. That fateful night provides the backdrop for the play (local multi-talent and Always … Patsy Cline veteran Ellen Pfirrmann reprises her role as Seger).
As Seger shares her letters and conversations, Cline weaves 20 songs throughout. “It’s not strictly biographical,” Aiello says. “But there are a few things that people might not know … human slices like her children, and how much she missed her family while on tour.” Aiello first channeled Cline while working with the show’s original creator in Denver, Colo. She has since faithfully played the part 12 times across the country, including three previous engagements in Asheville.
Any real-life character that has passed into myth remains open to a little interpretation — but fans’ intimate knowledge of Cline demands authenticity where it counts.
“I studied for three months. I read every book,” Aiello says of her preparation, noting, “It’s an exhausting show.”
That emotional burden is partly embedded in Cline’s repertoire — though written by others, the lines she sang often mirrored her own troubled relationships. Her songs mourned love, and the conflicts in judgment that desire can bring. “She was courageous and gutsy. She went after what she wanted,” Aiello says. “But the men she chose were not necessarily the best for her.” In that turmoil, though, Cline found a voice. That’s where the realness lies.
“It has to be visceral and heartfelt,” says Aiello, pointing out that Cline’s nuances and demeanor are as important as her pitch and timbre. “You really get a sense of who she is; how she talks to people.” And a girl can’t do it alone. To pull off a great country show, you need a great country band. This time around, the appropriate licks will be provided by The Bodacious Bobcats, a lineup of local talent directed by Bruce Lang.
And you don’t have to be an honest-to-God, Patsy-T-shirt-wearing, kiss-requesting fan to be pulled into the show. But if you are, you won’t be disappointed. Says Aiello: “If you are a Patsy fan, you will probably come to see it twice. If you are not already a fan, it can make you one.”
[Brian Postelle contributes frequently to Xpress.]
Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre opens Always … Patsy Cline at Asheville Community Theatre (35 E. Walnut St.) Friday, Jan. 14. The show runs through Sunday, Jan. 30 with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and on Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20/adults, $10/students. Call 254-1320 for more information.