If you like classic country music but are on the fence about dropping in on Playhouse on the Square’s A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, do yourself a favor and go. Renee Kemper sounds just like Patsy, the band's hot, and the comedy is groaner-ific. It’s good entertainment even if it’s not very good theater.
I’ve never quite been able to decide if A Closer Walk— a certifiably hokey tribute to the beloved singer—is too ambitious or not ambitious enough. It tries to be many things at once: a biography, a remembrance, a musical revue, and a stand up comedy act. It also tries to recreate the feel of concerts in venues ranging from gut-bucket bars to the Grand Old Opry, Las Vegas, and Carnegie Hall. But really, it only ever succeeds in reminding viewers of the one thing everybody already knows: Cline, whose life was cut tragically short when her plane crashed in the hills near Camden, Tennessee, was a powerful singer who left behind a gorgeous, vastly influential body of work.
A Closer Walk documents Cline’s rise to stardom, dropping bits of trivia along the way, but it never seriously considers her importance in the evolution of Country Music, a field of endeavor which, in spite of the occasional solo hit by yodeling cowgirls like Patsy Montana, was a real boy’s club until the mid 1950’s when artists like Cline, Kittly Wells, Jean Shepard, and Skeeter Davis all became consistent hit-makers. Husky-voiced an independent, Cline was an inspiration to aspiring artists like Loretta Lynn, and her unique ability to appeal to audiences that weren’t usually partial to country music increased the honky tonk fan base in ways unseen since Tony Bennett covered Hank Williams’ "Cold, Cold Heart" in 1951.
Renee Kemper sings "Your Cheating Heart"
Cline had a larger-than-life personality, and more than enough drama in her private world to build a solid play around. But A Closer Walk is a study in two dimensions, a narrated biography with almost no interaction between the characters onstage. With an emphasis on struggling, singing and praising the Lord it's the very definition of claptrap, but there's good news too. It never pretends to be much more than what it is: an excuse to put some great songs on stage.
John Hemphill takes on a several roles. He’s never as engaging as he might be as the show's narrator, a country deejay called Little Big Man. But he excels as a wisecracking Las Vegas lounge lizard and springs to joyous life as a motley hayseed comic modeled after Cousin Jody and Minnie Pearl’s sometimes sparring partner Rod Brasfield.
Kemper’s not an especially strong actor but she gets the job done and her voice is a revelation, especially on more dramatic pieces by top-shelf songwriters like Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, and Don Gibson. Her powerhouse run through the posthumously released "Sweet Dreams" doesn’t just pay tribute to the original, it rivals it and is easily the most beautiful sound I’ve heard on a Memphis stage all year. But sonically speaking this show’s most exciting moments aren't Patsy's. That honor goes to the harmonious quartet of Kyle Blair, Ben Laxton, Nick Mason, and John Koski, worthy stand-ins for the spectacular Jordanaires.
After Patsy’s death has been tearfully announced Hemphill's Little Big Man says a prayer and tells God one of his best angels is on the way. Moments later the back wall opens up, light blasts out at the audience, and Kemper is flown in with the aid of a wire and a long black plank: a literal Patsy ex machina. The effect is stunning even if the image is literal to the point of silliness. She might as well be wearing wings and carrying a harp.
The marketing materials for A Closer Walk describe it as the “perfect small-cast musical” with minimal technical requirements. It arrives as described and other than the angel effect, lighting and scenic design is minimal. The Vegas sign cutouts and a big blue moon all look cheap, but this is a show about listening, not looking and the weak script and spare design is balanced out by a healthy selection of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits including "She's Got You," "Walking After Midnight," "Faded Love," and of course, the title track, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."
At least one technical issue merits a mention. The sound mix is a mess. Or it was for last Sunday's matinee anyway. Dialogue over music was unintelligible. It’s not very interesting dialogue at least and besides, if you’re going to A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, talking is probably the last thing on your mind. Or it should be, hoss. It sure as shootin' should be.