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MISS PATSY Cline, one of the greatest country music stars of hers or any time, had a voice that could break your heart and make you want to sing your own brains out. She was a woman's woman, a fact not lost on her millions of female fans nor on the thousands of little girls who could belt out "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" a cappella in their shortie pajamas by the time they were six years old. You want to understand babes, guys? See this play.

"Always . . . Patsy Cline" (a title that begs for a comma), the 1988 Houston musical, is now an off-Broadway hit. The Artpark version, directed by Brother Augustine Towey, C.M., is a colorful, engaging and energetic production that will please Patsy (and Towey) fans very much indeed. It opened Thursday on Artpark's main stage, and had the audience virtually hopping in the aisles. It grabs your attention right away and moves quickly from the upbeat and feisty to the worn out and broken and back again before you can even catch your breath.

The musical, which is exceptionally well designed and costumed, consists principally of Cline hits sung by singer-actress Diana Pappas, who is beautifully dressed up in historic Patsy-wear like those scarlet cowgirl shirts trimmed in long white fringe plus trademark Cline rhinestones and white spiked heels.

Pappas sounds remarkably like Cline. She certainly has the singer's power, if not quite her range or astonishing fluidity in the vocal riff department -- and mimics to a tee, Patsy's witty sass, mannerisms and gesticulations on stage. It is impossible, I would think, to sound exactly like the astonishing Cline, but Pappas does an excellent job of recalling her presence and effect on an audience. I remember Cline as a pudgier woman with a face far broader than Pappas. Here she looks like mid-career Liz Taylor with Jane Russell's wise-acre torn-pocket of a mouth. Photos reveal that, indeed, Cline was, for much of her career, a svelte, leggy and elegant figure who did justice to her tight sheath dresses and fitted gowns.

Pappas' performance seems a bit stiff at times as if the effort of mimicry left her little of her own sauce with which to juice up the interpretation. That juice is provided by the engaging Diana Rogers, who plays Louise Seger, a Texas housewife and devoted Patsy fan. Her story provides the frame upon which is hung the music, the outfits and the message of Cline's true-life down-home woman-to-woman sensibilities, especially where the hairier sex is concerned.

Seger is an actual personage whose friendship with the star lasted right up until the day the 30-year-old Cline died along with Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas in a plane crash while on a performance tour. Rogers has received rave reviews herself in another production of the musical in which she played Cline, and here does a raucous turn as a gutsy, gallant single mother who makes earthy sense and one heck of a cup of coffee.

Backed by a fine country combo, Pappas courts us with the nifty "Back in Baby's Arms," Cline's great cross-over hit, "Walkin' After Midnight," the heartbreaking trio of "I Fall to Pieces," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "She's Got You" and several other of Cline's monster hits before wiping us out in Act Two with the elegant "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky." A whole passel of Lewiston honeys sat behind me on preview night and sang along with the roughly 25 songs in the show the way women have always done to Patsy Cline -- knowing she's right on the money and better off than any of the negligent lovers who haunt her lyrics.

During her brief career, which lasted from 1954 to 1963, Cline established a musical legacy so strong that her MCA Nashville titles have collectively sold more than 10 million albums. The album "Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits" alone has been certified as a seven times platinum seller and on Tuesday, her label will re-release the historic "Live at the Cimarron Ballroom" album 36 years from the date it was first recorded. The original cast album of "Always, Patsy Cline" is also available on MCA Nashville label, so there's jist no reason you can't get out there, girlfriends, see this show then get out and grab some Patsy of your own and get that guy outa your system.

Always . . . Patsy Cline

Rating: * * * *
Directed by Brother Augustine Towey, C.M., starring Diana Pappas and Diana Rogers.
Performances continue through July 30 on Artpark's Mainstage.

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