By Lynn Venhaus
Patsy Cline was that rare artist who made a deep connection with anyone who listened to her sing.
A similar effect happens with actresses Diana DeGarmo and Zoe Vonder Haar, who are a delightful combo of sweet and salty, smooth and sassy, silky and spirited, in the jukebox musical “Always…Patsy Cline,” now playing at Stages St. Louis through Sept. 5.
Raised in Georgia and now living in Nashville, DeGarmo has returned to her country music roots in a thoroughly engaging performance.
She sleekly inhabits Cline, who is considered the most popular female country singer in recording history. DeGarmo emulates Cline’s richly textured, emotive voice, and effortlessly delivers 27 numbers, including five with Vonder Haar, who plays Cline’s fan-turned-friend, Louise Seger.
DeGarmo, who was the runner-up on Season 3 of “American Idol” at age 16 in 2004, which Fantasia Barrino, 19, won (a total of 65 million votes were cast for both), has since pursued a music and musical theatre career, appearing on Broadway and in national tours.
Previously in St. Louis, she was impressive as Doralee Rhodes in the first national tour of “9 to 5: The Musical,” which stopped at the Fox Theatre in February 2011, and also at the Fox in 2014 as the Narrator in the revival tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Her husband, Ace Young, was Joseph. (She met Young, who was on American Idol’s fifth season, when they were cast in “Hair” and have been married since 2013).
She is poised and commanding as she interprets one hit song after another, showcasing her range and control. The vocals on the ballads “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Sweet Dreams” are particularly lush, tugging on your heart strings.
She has fun changing tempos with the more down-home numbers, such as “Stupid Cupid” and “Shake Rattle and Roll.”
DeGarmo projects an elegance, which is enhanced by Brad Musgrove’s gorgeous vintage costume designs, and she is exquisitely lit by lighting designer Sean M. Savoie.
She has a dynamic chemistry with feisty firecracker Vonder Haar, the veteran fan favorite who has played Louise twice before. Vonder Haar won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for the first time (and would go on to win that same award for Stages’ “The Full Monty” two years later).
It’s a good match. Seger, a colorful Texas housewife, was a devoted fan who first saw Patsy on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” in 1957, when she won after singing “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Living near Houston, she attended the singer’s show at the Esquire Ballroom in 1961, and they connected as friends, writing letters and talking on the phone until the singer’s tragic death at age 30 in a plane crash in 1963.
Playwright Ted Swindley fashioned the interviews Seger did for the biographies “Patsy Cline: An Intimate Biography” and “Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline” into the source material for his 1988 two-woman tribute revue, “Always…Patsy Cline,” which is the epitome of a crowd-pleaser. It is licensed by Cline’s family and estate.
From Seger in “Country Weekly”: “The person inside me recognized the person who lived inside her. It was truly eerie.”
Patsy joined Louise and her friends and after the show accepted an invitation to Louise’s home for a late-night breakfast. “It was like I was living in a dream. There was Patsy Cline in my kitchen helping me fix bacon and eggs. She took her shoes off and wore an apron I gave her.
“She told me about her life, her hopes, her dreams. We discussed loves lost, loves found, loves yet to be.
“We talked about her troubled marriage and the pain she endured being away from her children. It was just two people baring their souls.
“We both sang and harmonized old Gospel songs and hillbilly tunes. We sat there and smoked and sang until 4:00 in the morning.”
Louise rushed Patsy to the airport, expecting never to hear from her again. But within two weeks, Louise received her first in what was to be many letters and phone calls they would exchange.
“I often would receive calls at 1:00 in the morning. She’d be singing in some town wanting a friend to talk to.”
Of course, this was 60 years ago, before entertainers had security, a ‘team’ and ‘people.’ It was just two women bonding at a kitchen table.
While Swindley took some poetic license, the story is true – a glamorous celebrity who grew up without privilege and her plain-spoken, music-lovin’ pal.
From the moment she sashays on to scenic designer James Wolk’s vintage 1950s-era kitchen set, Vonder Haar, a St. Louis treasure, is a funny and sincere Louise. She engages the audience as comic relief with her folksy charm, coming across like a neighbor joining you for a kaffee klatch.
This memoir, which opens the theater company’s 35th anniversary year, is the most popular show in Stages’ history. This is the third time it’s being presented, after back-to-back runs in 2013 and 2014, which demonstrates again how endearing and charming it is. It was as warmly received Aug. 11 as it was seven and eight years ago.
The cozy show, first at Stages’ former home at Kirkwood’s Community Center, then moved intact to The Playhouse at Westport Plaza, is opening their new venue, the Kirkwood Center for the Performing Arts. The Ross Family Theatre seats 529 comfortably.
Artistic Director Michael Hamilton has recreated the production, capitalizing on the actress’s strengths. The premise is simple – showing Cline singing at the Grand Old Opry and other locations, with Louise listening to her on the radio, which was a communication lifeline for people back then.
A simpler time, a touch of nostalgia, admiration for a career cut way too short, but spotlighting music that continues to warm hearts to this day.
The lively band, conducted by music director Jeremy Jacobs, who also plays the piano, is an expert blend of Steve Hitsman on steel pedal guitar, Dave Black on electric and acoustic guitars, Kevin Buckley on acoustic guitar and fiddle, Eric Grossman on bass and Joe Meyer on drums. Their tight sound is mighty in an alcove perched behind a scrim.
Original orchestrations for the band and vocals were crafted by August Eriksmoen and Tony Migliore.
While the songs take center stage, the fascinating tale of a close friendship between kindred spirits is what resonates, drawing an audience in, one who welcomes the warm embrace of harmony in music and life.
Stages St. Louis presents “Always…Patsy Cline” through Sept. 5, performance times vary, at the Ross Family Theatre inside the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center at 210 Monroe St. ASL interpreting and audio description by MindsEye will be available for the Aug. 20 show. For more information, call 314-821-2407 or visit www.StagesSt.Louis.org. Follow Stages on Facebook and Instagram.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.