'Always... Patsy Cline' at Firebrand Theatre is a love letter to female friendship
From the moment you enter The Den Theatre’s Janet Bookspan space to see Firebrand Theatre’s Always... Patsy Cline, you feel like you’re at a barn dance out in the country. With string lights in the rafters, a jukebox in the corner, and tables covered with plaid tablecloths, you wouldn’t think you were in the heart of Chicago’s Wicker Park. This is all due to the brilliance of lighting designer, Cat Wilson, and scenic designer, Lauren Nichols. I honestly felt like I was missing my cowgirl boots and plaid shirt, which any girl born and raised in Nebraska is required to own.
Written by Ted Swinley and directed by Brigitte Ditmars, the crowd buzzes as you see Harmony France (Firebrand's Artistic Director) come in. Dressed in a blonde wig emulating a patron, she puts a dime in the jukebox and sits down at a table in the front. You soon realize as she starts speaking and the lights go down, that she is meant to be Louise Seger--- Cline’s friend and long time confidant. Bubbly and the ultimate fan girl, France’s performance reminded me of anyone meeting their favorite celebrity.
In between songs, France acts as our narrator. She, as she tells us, “puts one of Patsy’s songs on the jukebox,” and Christina Hall emerges dressed in an exact replica of the red cowgirl outfit that Cline wore when singing at the Grand Ole Opry. This is a testament to the care Stephanie Taylor put into the costumes. When Hall sings, you can’t help but pay attention to her. She commands the stage as Patsy once did, crooning her heart out to hits like, “Walking After Midnight,” “Crazy,” and “I Fall to Pieces” (in total she sings over twenty-seven songs). All the songs are incorporated fittingly into the story. This jukebox musical will get any country fan mouthing along to the songs and tapping their boots with The Bodacious Bobcats. Andra Velis Simon is on keyboard and conductor/music director, Steven Romero Schaeffer plays electric and lap steel guitars, Emma Sheikh plays fiddle and acoustic guitar, and Tina Muñoz Pandya is on drums.
The show also inspires you to immediately go home and search for the historical details of this story. For example, Patsy and Louise wrote letters back and forth to each other. I wanted to read more of the letters than the last one that was narrated to us in the show. I wanted to know more about Patsy’s life and understand the emotions that went behind these heart wrenching songs.
Overall, it’s a immersive show and the actors encourage you to be involved. The set does the first part, acting as your portal into this world. The actors do the rest; ad libbing things like, “Y’all don’t get out much, do ya?” when the crowd wasn’t responsive to a question, or a simple, “Play that music, y’all!” in the middle of singing an upbeat song. France even brings out audience members to the dance floor and do-si-dos with them!
It's a good thing France and Hall switch roles every night because it takes a lot of energy to play either character, just in different ways. Patsy has to vocally during her time on stage and Louise goes all out with playing to the audience even when you wouldn’t expect her to. You get a snippet of each playing the other role as Louise sings with Patsy, but this left me wanting to see the women switch to see how they would be if the roles were reversed.
As much as I appreciated the show itself, I also appreciated Firebrand’s mission. They’re a musical theatre company committed to employing and empowering womxn* by expanding opportunities on and off stage. *Womxn is used to include trans and non-binary folx. I find this production a perfect fit as Patsy Cline is one of the most underestimated, yet influential women in country music to this day. A large theme of the show focuses on the importance of female friendship as well, which is not normally shown as it is here. Both women had shared issues with their marriages, careers, and children; and talked about them honestly like you only could to a friend.
So put on your best country boots and head on down to The Den Theatre to have yourself a darn tootin’ good time now. Ya hear?
Julie Brumbach is the Marketing Administrative Assistant at Tripp Lite. Originally from Omaha, NE, Julie moved to study at DePaul University where she graduated in 2019 with a degree in Public Relations and Advertising with a minor in Media and Cinema Studies. She's always loved art, but her passion for theatre comes from her first production of The Wizard of Oz in her hometown.