Louise Seger felt as though she'd known Patsy Cline all her life the instant she met the country star 35 years ago. It was all the things they had in common.
"We both came from poor beginnings, and both of us had ambition," says Seger, an adoring fan from Texas, whose friendship with the Virginia-born Cline underscores a successful touring musical making its Orange County debut Friday.
"We both had chipped teeth from opening bobby pins to put our hair up, and we had similar taste in clothes--it wouldn't be unusual for us to wear the same thing in different colors. And we both liked horseshoe jewelry: rings and things.
"Also, Patsy was a sort of a no-nonsense girl; she wouldn't take no [baloney] from anybody, and I was much the same way. Plus we had both been divorced [the former Virginia Patterson Hensley had married Gerald Cline in 1953], and both had two children."
"Always . . . Patsy Cline," to be staged by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, stars actress-singer Alice Spencer of Austin, Texas, who delivers 22 Cline hits, including "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces" and "Walkin' After Midnight."
Playwright-director Ted Swindley, who based the show on a Cline biography ("Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline" by Ellis Nassour), mostly tells the singer's story (from her first televised performance in 1957 to her death just six years later) through Seger's eyes.
The Times' pop music critic Robert Hilburn, who saw the show last week in Glendale, wrote that Spencer "marvelously captures" Cline's vocal delivery and demeanor, but he criticized the musical's "feel-good script" for only hinting at Cline's troubled personal life. Another critic pointed out that a touching sense of the singer finally emerges only when the Seger character reads a letter written by Cline, who died at 30 in a 1963 plane crash.
Still, the musical has drawn mostly glowing reviews since opening at Houston's Stages Repertory Theatre in 1988. And it typically sells out, said Arkansas Rep Theatre management, noting Cline's enduring popularity as one of the top-selling female country artists of all time. (Officials of the 750-seat Irvine Barclay Theatre speculated earlier this week that the show would probably sell out.)
Audiences typically sing along to the show's Cline catalog, said Spencer, who is backed by a five-piece country band.
"They sing louder than me!" she said, after answering the phone with a warm "Hey, how ya doin' " for a recent interview from a North Carolina tour stop. "They lose themselves. It's a way to recapture the nostalgia."
Spencer joined the show three months ago after a lengthy gig singing with a ragtime and blues band. She studied musical comedy at Webster University's Conservatory for the Arts in St. Louis, but the idea of impersonating one of music's legends--in front of audiences sure to include folks who'd heard Cline sing--was truly daunting, said the 26-year-old.
"Her style was so unique, so fresh. There really hadn't been anyone in country who sang with that sort of raw power and energy; it's almost a sexual energy, a passion."
But Spencer must be doing something right. Praise has been coming in from every direction, including kudos from country singer Loretta Lynn's brother, who knew Cline.
"We met in Kentucky, and after the show he said I was the closest thing he'd ever heard to Patsy and that she'd have loved my performance," Spencer said.
"Another time, [a crew member] was walking through the audience and overheard an older gentleman say 'I heard Patsy Cline sing when I was 17, and I was 17 again tonight.' "
Seger too believes that "Always . . . Patsy Cline" accurately portrays its namesake. She has seen the musical several times and the current production, with Spencer, twice.
The retired assembly worker, 64, said by phone from her home near Galveston, Texas, that she met Cline when she attended a Houston concert by the singer. Thereafter, Cline would often call her late at night following yet another show on the road.
"We'd just talk like you would with a girlfriend," she said. "She'd tell me what she wore, how the audience received her performance, what was going on with her home life and personal life."
But Seger said she takes "great umbrage" at the way she's portrayed in "Always," which has her as a fun-loving, cussing, Schlitz-savoring, gesticulating, blue-collar gal. The role is played in this production by Candyce Hinkle.
"I come across as a buffoon," Seger said (Times critic Hilburn used that very word to describe the character). "They have me in the most garish of costumes and a ridiculous red wig and generally talking like Granny Clampett [the crotchety matriarch of TV's 'The Beverly Hillbillies']."
Swindley, who pays Seger a royalty for the use of her story, acknowledged that the musical is a theatricalization but said he doesn't agree with her view of the character. He did make script changes for Cline's second husband, Charlie Dick, who has seen the show with the couple's grown children and owns the rights to Cline's life story.
Dick had a widely known reputation for philandering and battering Cline. But Swindley had to delete a line that likened Dick's behavior to his last name, he said.
In fact, the show only touches on Cline's domestic unhappiness, which is as it should be, Spencer said.
"It would be completely accurate to talk about the abuse in her marriage," she said, "but the way the story is now, you end up focusing on the music. That's what you leave the theater with."
* What: "Always . . . Patsy Cline."
* When: 8 p.m. Friday.
* Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive.
* Whereabouts: Exit the San Diego (405) Freeway at Jamboree Road; go south. Turn left onto Campus Drive. The theater is on Campus near Bridge Road, across from the Marketplace.
* Wherewithal: $22-$26.
* Where to call: (714) 854-4646.