ALAMEDA -- The discovery of an old RCA phonograph and a stack of 45 records in her parent's bedroom changed a young teen's life forever.

"I was only 14 or 15 at the time and bugged my mom until she let me take the record player and records into my room," Margaret Belton recalled.

"The first record I put on was Patsy Cline's 'Walking After Midnight' and I was in heaven. As an awkward adolescent, I felt something just suddenly click."

Now an accomplished musician, Belton still loves Cline's music and even has her own Patsy Cline tribute band.

But the singer is facing her biggest challenge yet as she prepares to open in the Altarena Playhouse production of "Always ... Patsy Cline" as none other than her idol -- Patsy Cline.

"Although I've never done a play before, I just had to audition," Belton said.

"I didn't stop to think how scared I'd be. But I was comfortable with Patsy and that made a big difference." Belton is now focusing all her energy on playing the young country singer, who at the height of her career lost her life in a plane crash when she was only 30 years old.

"I just don't want to let Patsy down, not one little bit," Belton said. "The entire cast and our great crew feel the same way."

"Always ... Patsy Cline" begins with the young star performing at the Grand Old Opry and goes on to show the growing friendship between Cline and her biggest fan, Houston housewife Louise Seger. Much of the show involves the letters that the two wrote as they began great friends and confidants. Cline signed her letters, "Always ... Patsy Cline."

According to Belton, the show gives a rare glimpse into the singer's real life.

"You get the back story," Belton said. "Here's a girl who had it pretty rough growing up, but her music held her together."

One of eight children born to parents involved in both performing and visual arts, Belton feels comfortable in the family atmosphere inherent at the Altarena Playhouse.

"This is a really professional, great place to work where everyone is so supportive, and the space is perfect for this show," Belton said.

Playing opposite Julia Etzel, who portrays the singer's best friend Louise, has made all the difference for Belton.

"When Julia walked in the room during auditions, she brought this fabulous energy.

"We hit it off right away. In fact, my face hurt from laughing so much during our scenes together," Belton said. "She's an incredible actress, and I'm learning so much from her. And Richard Robert Bunker, our director, is so passionate about this piece and the music. It's very exciting."

While playing such Cline hits as "Walking After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," and "Sweet Dreams" comes natural to Belton, learning all the dialogue has been more of a challenge.

"I've always had trouble with banter during a song," Belton said.

"My band used to help me with that, but this is totally different. There is so much to memorize, and I'm adamant about practicing constantly.

"Whether I'm walking down the street or exercising, I'm running lines and song lyrics. My brother, who's a New York-based actor, used to sing around our house all the time, giving us a preview of his next show. Now, I'm doing the same thing."

Adding their creativity to the show are musical director Tania Johnson, choreographer Deedra Wong and costumer Janice Stephenson.

"Every time I put on another fabulous 1950s dress, it adds so much to the role and having a live band on stage just moves it to a whole other level," Belton said.

FYI
What: "Always Patsy Cline"
When: May 9 to June 15
Where: Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St. Alameda
Information: for tickets, call 510-523-1553 or go to www.altarena.org.