“Crazy” for classic country: Jessica Wagner returns to Bristol Riverside Theatre as Patsy Cline

PHOTO: BRISTOL RIVERSIDE THEATRE

PHOTO: BRISTOL RIVERSIDE THEATRE

Opening two consecutive seasons with shows about Patsy Cline seems weird at first. But when you’ve got Jessica Wagner in your list of regulars, it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

This month, the actor once again plays the late country singer at the Bristol Riverside Theatre with its season opener “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline.”

It’s purposefully a throwback to last year’s, “Always .. Patsy Cline.” An accomplished singer as well, Wagner seems born to play this role (being from Texas originally probably helps).

That much was apparent in last year’s production.The resemblance is strong enough that, this year, Wagner can stand in front of a wall plastered with authentic Patsy Cline album covers without there being an obvious difference between the two.

Her poise and scrunched-up smile, plus some deft makeup work and just the right costumes, helped her look the role exactly.

The kicker, however, is her voice. Wagner adopts the less warbly approach Cline employed when the singer focused on pop over country.

In doing so, she nails the original singer’s heartbreaking low, throaty passages and higher-pitched flights.

Wagner’s spot-on renditions could almost be taken for granted on upbeat numbers like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” or on a fantastic rendition of “Lovesick Blues” where a less stylized approach better highlights the melody.

But when the mood turns slow and somber, especially on the ballads “She’s Got You” and “Crazy,” it becomes apparent just how authentically Wagner channels Cline’s emotion just as well as her approach.

In honor of the Bristol Riverside Theatre’s 30th anniversary this year, the programming this season includes callbacks to audience favorites over the years. In this case, the names are the same but the story — and, in some ways the character — are not.

Where “Always” took a cross-section of the legendary singer’s career from the perspective of one fan, “A Closer Walk” follows Cline’s career from debut on a Winchester, Virginia radio station to her untimely death in 1963.

Despite the timeline, “A Closer Walk” doesn’t offer much in the way of documentary — or even dialogue, for that matter. Over an hour and 45 minutes, 23 songs and nearly as many costume changes, Wagner never speaks any lines other than stage banter.

The only exposition comes from Danny Vaccaro as a disc jockey. reminiscing about the singer and her music in between songs.

As a revue, the production is a great success. The costume changes and five-piece band, featured prominently onstage, help envelope the audience.

It’s never immersive in a way to make you feel like you’re at, say, a small-town radio station, Las Vegas club or Carnegie Hall decades ago. Instead, the stripped-down set and pro band merely provide the ambiance to enjoy those classic songs, expertly rendered, in Lower Bucks County today.

The production also subverts the revue format ever so slightly: Wagner only smiles here, just like the real Cline always did on stage. Contrast that with last year, when she’d often look as heartbroken as the songs she was was singing, portraying Cline as she sounded to an empathetic fan.

This year, we get the show-biz Cline, always on and never fazed. If it seems like a cop-out, it’s not: there’s something to be said about a woman who got up there night after night without cracking or patting herself on the back.

Here, she leaves that to Vaccaro. As the DJ, he talks about her forcing a shifty promoter to pay the band and how she focussed on gospel songs after a near-fatal car crash.

And, in a dual role as a hack comic opening for Cline, it’s notable that he’d make disparaging jokes about his wife. Ironically, he did so opening for a singer whose marital woes were well-known — but never enough to slow her down.

Even so, all that is just wraparound for the main attraction: Patsy Cline, sounding just as good today as she did in 1962.

“A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline” plays at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. In Bristol, through Oct. 16. For information, visit brtstage.org.

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