“You stick with me in the little ones, I’ll stick with you in the big ones,” Patsy Cline told a Carnegie Hall audience just months before her death in a plane crash in 1963.
The line is part of the new Billings Studio Theatre production, “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline,” which opens May 10 and runs through May 25. The show is sanctioned by Patsy Cline’s estate, which is working so diligently to honor Cline’s memory that it requires theaters to video the actress portraying Cline singing her three biggest hits.
BST director AJ Kalanick said when they got a look at Billings actress Megan McClave in the title role, they immediately approved.
Cline’s trademark contralto voice was attributed to a case of rheumatic fever when she was 13. Cline reportedly said, “When I recovered I had this booming voice like Kate Smith.”
McClave has that same rich tone and expressive voice and she’s growing into the necessary swagger in this tribute show, directed by Jayme Green.
“I have never had a role like this,” McClave said. “I’ve always liked Patsy Cline and know her work, but I’m more of a shy person. Once I get singing, though, I’m able to take charge.”
Green is adding yet more authenticity to the show. When he couldn’t find the right dress, he asked his mother, Susanne Green, to make McClave’s red-fringed dress, just like Patsy used to ask her mom.
“Patsy’s mom made all those dresses for Patsy,” Jayme Green said.
Then there’s the band. When Green found out he was directing this show, he knew he’d need a good steel guitar player and reached out to John Kemmick, who played the role of Walter Haynes in the Hank Williams tribute show, “Lonesome Highway,” in 2011 at Venture Theatre.
“Walter played for Patsy, too. So it’s all part of the story,” Green said.
Kemmick pulled in some other top musicians, including Pat Rogers on percussion, Joe Sullivan on piano, and Bob Brown on stand-up bass.
Jubal Rife, Kevin Cates and Tom Wagner play Cline’s backup singers, the Jordanaires, and Zak Kreiter brings his dynamic energy and humor to the roles of emcee, radio deejay and comedian.
In a scene in Act 2 during rehearsal Monday, Kreiter ran through some corny jokes and then jumped right into his big song, “Jimmy Crack Corn,” milking it for all it was worth with foot stomping and hand clapping. He urged the technical staff in the theater to join in and most couldn’t resist, including Green. It will undoubtedly be a highlight of the production.
In her role as Cline, McClave’s voice has a vulnerability to it, breaking at just the right moments in big songs like “Walking After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” Her performance during rehearsal of the title cut, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” is a stunner, especially backed by the Jordanaires with their tight harmonies.
McClave sings 21 of the 39 tunes in the show. The Jordanaires are featured on several radio commercial ditties for products like Ajax and on other tunes from Cline’s era, including a fast-paced “Fly Away.”