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A country icon is celebrated in Straz Center’s ‘Always ... Patsy Cline’

The singer’s most beloved songs are showcased in the musical play at the Tampa performing arts center.

TAMPA — A jubilant salute to a “honky tonk angel” comes with Always ... Patsy Cline, a musical play showing now at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 6.

Penned by Ted Swindley, the Straz Center’s production is based on the true story of a friendship Cline forged with a super fan, Louise Seger.

Cline, known for her songs about heartache, is considered one of the most influential singers of the 20th century and was one of the first country music artists to cross over into pop music. Her successful recording career included several major hits, such as Walkin’ After Midnight, which went to No. 1 on the country and pop charts. But her career and life were cut short when she died in a plane crash in 1963 at age 30.

Full of Cline’s memorable music, Always succeeds by keeping the narrative fun and light.

Held in the Jaeb Theater, the stage is set up for a four-piece band. At house left sits a kitchen table, and at house right is a jukebox and another table.

As Cline, Heather Krueger belts out the singer’s beloved songs about heartache with a soulful voice, borrowing the sweet inflections Cline was known for. She’s backed by the band onstage: Alan Blake Conley (piano), Elwood Bond (drums), Nader Issa (bass) and Rebekah Pulley (guitar). Krueger has great banter with the band and the audience.

Conley is also the production’s music director. The show captures the experience of watching Cline perform and is a rundown of all the favorites, including Back in Baby’s Arms, Walkin’ After Midnight, I Fall to Pieces, She’s Got You and Crazy.

Katrina Stevenson designed the enviable costumes, dressing Krueger in the flashy cowgirl outfits Cline favored in her early years, then the more formal dresses she wore as her success grew.

But it’s not just a mini tribute concert to Cline. The sweet true story of Cline’s friendship with a fan she met during a performance in Texas also unfolds.

Enter Seger (Diana Rogers), who speaks directly to the audience, recounting the first time she saw Cline perform, on the television show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Rogers delivers a humorous, saucy performance, engaging the audience and throwing around plenty of country-fried phrases.

Seger became so enchanted with Cline that she pestered her local radio station’s disc jockey to play Cline’s music at least four times a day. When she hears Cline will be performing at the Esquire Ballroom in Houston, she drags her boyfriend and her boss down there long before the concert starts.

Seger and Cline meet and hit it off like old girlfriends. A rowdy night laced with beers and music ensues, ending with Cline spending the night at Seger’s house.

Krueger and Rogers have great chemistry, making the show a lot of fun. At first, the audience at the performance we attended needed a lot of encouragement from them to clap along and holler back. But by the second act, people were eager to be called on and get up to dance.

Through conversations, letters and songs, details about Cline’s life are touched upon but not dwelled on, which is a relief. While the event of her death is melancholy, it quickly turns to celebration through song.

The last number, True Love, got a standing ovation and demand for an encore.

And as if to prove just how catchy Cline’s music is, after the audience left the theater, someone started singing Crazy.

What to expect

In lieu of paper tickets, guests are encouraged to download the Straz Center app, where tickets can be purchased and presented on smartphones. Before the audience can enter the theater, each person must fill out a health screening. This can be done in advance on the Straz Center’s website, or upon arrival using a QR code on a smartphone or by filling out a piece of paper. Temperatures are taken upon arrival.

Masks are required to be worn at all times inside the theater. There is a bar outside, but drinks are not allowed inside, with the exception of bottled water.

Only two patrons are allowed in the bathroom at a time. In the theater, tables that seat up to four people have been spaced 6 feet apart.

To see the full list of coronavirus precautions, visit strazcenter.org.

If you go

Always ... Patsy Cline runs Nov. 20-22: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday; and Dec. 3-6: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35.50 for one, $55.50 for two or $75.50 to $99.50 for a table of up to four people. Jaeb Theater, David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. 813-229-7827. strazcenter.org.

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