ALAMEDA -- Two very different dynamos -- Margaret Belton and Julie Etzel -- took over the Altarena Playhouse stage last weekend as the company opened "Always ... Patsy Cline," a poignant and highly entertaining look at the young country singer and the Houston housewife who became her best friend.
Well-written by Ted Swindley and full of 27 country hits, the show will satisfy any die-hard country music fan, and it has plenty of good storyline and action for those with other musical tastes. But to make this show a winner, it needs a singer/actor capable of playing Cline at the height of her career and a powerhouse of energy to take on her best friend, Louise.
Fortunately, for director Richard Robert Bunker and musical director Tania Johnson, they have both. Belton as Cline not only looks the part (thanks to costume designer Janice Stephenson and wig and makeup artist Lexie Lezear), but she seems to be channeling the singer as well. As for Louise, you couldn't ask for a more vivacious actress than Etzel to play her trustworthy confidant.
From the moment Belton walks on stage in one of Stephenson's many period-perfect outfits, she epitomizes the singer who came to prominence in the late 1950s. From her shy, slightly sad, smile to her down-home warmth, Belton charms the audience before she even begins to sing. And when she does, she caresses with her warm vocal tones, bending notes and delivery of emotion-packed numbers, just as the real Cline did.
With her infectious energy, big voice and even bigger smile, Etzel contrasts beautifully with Belton's more reserved character. She engages the audience on many occasions and easily conveys the myriad emotions necessary as she goes from star-struck fan to comforting friend.
For those not familiar with Cline, she was a rising star in the late 1950s and early 1960s when she was killed in a plane crash. She was 30 years old and had only recorded about 100 songs. A favorite with the Grand Old Opry, Cline brought a lot of emotion to her music while also connecting with the audience like an old friend. She left behind a husband and young son.
The woman sitting next to me on opening night admitted that she was not a country music fan but that she enjoyed the show immensely. Her husband, on the other hand, kept looking to see if Belton was lip-syncing since he couldn't believe someone could so precisely match Cline's vocal style.
But Belton, who has her own Patsy Cline tribute band, has no need for lip-syncing. She's been singing Cline's music since she was 14 years old and discovered her mom's old RCA phonograph and stack of 45 rpm records, which included Cline's music.
Belton and Etzel are joined on stage by The Bodacious Bobcats, a finely tuned five-piece band that keeps the place jumping. Beware if you sit in the front rows. You may find yourself dancing on stage to this tight ensemble's infectious beat as Etzel encourages audience members to become a part of the action.
"Always Patsy Cline" continues through June 15 at the Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St. in Alameda. Tickets are going fast. To secure yours, call 510-523-1553 or go to www.altarena.org.