Wichita’s Cindy Summers has lost track of the number of times she’s brought sassy, brassy country legend Patsy Cline to life in “Always, Patsy Cline.”
“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times since 1996, when we set the all-time record for Wichita live theater,” Summers says of her nine-month run of sold-out shows at the now defunct Cabaret Oldtown. Playwright Ted Swindley’s nostalgic and haunting musical remembrance featuring 28 Cline songs is based on the singer’s true-life friendship with a Houston housewife who was her biggest fan.
Summers, who made her name on the local club circuit, portrayed Patsy through such classics as “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces,” while Christine Tasheff, Cabaret founder and frequent performer, played devoted fan Louise Seger, recounting their unlikely friendship as documented in a series of letters and phone calls from a chance meeting after a 1961 concert to Cline’s untimely death in a plane crash in 1963 at age 30.
After Wichita, Summers took the show to Denver, where she played Patsy eight times a week for four years. Then she played her for four months in Connecticut. Then she toured up and down the East Coast and throughout Texas.
“I think the last time I did it was three years ago in North Carolina. There were so many people they couldn’t fit them all in,” Summers says. “They set up speakers on a patio outside and told (the overflow crowd) they were free to stay around and listen.”
When Summers and Tasheff called a halt to the original Wichita run in 1997 because of other commitments, Tasheff says there was still a waiting list of about 600 people wanting to see the show.
“Always leave ’em wanting more,” Tasheff says with a laugh.
Now Summers is reuniting with Tasheff to bring the show back to Wichita at Roxy’s Downtown, which is a homecoming of sorts because the venue is the new incarnation of the old Cabaret Oldtown location. The show opens Friday.
To channel Cline, Summers studied the famous recordings of her songs, then watched newsreels and clips of her appearances to recreate her movements, gestures and swagger.
“What was really helpful was that Johnny Western was at KFDI at that time so I could ask him what she was like because he personally knew her,” Summers says. “She was a brash, bold gal who spoke her mind. But there was also a kind of vulnerability. She was a breakthrough artist as a female in male-dominated country music.”
Cline’s producers steered her toward the pop charts backed by orchestrations and choruses like the Jordanaires, but she wanted to remain true to her country roots, Summers says. “She loved country music.”
Tasheff says she had already created her performance as Louise Seger, the pen-pal housewife, before she met the real-life Seger, who made the trip from Texas to Wichita to see the show during the original run. Seger, she says, gave her thumbs up for her effort.
“I knew the character was a good old gal like Patsy Cline, but when I talked with her, I could really see what they had in common. They were both country, they both had children and were maternal, they were both tough cookies. They recognized that in each other. That’s why they were close,” Tasheff says.
“She liked me. She said I did her justice,” Tasheff recalls of Seger, who died about six years ago. “I love how high-energy and cantankerous she was. I’m sort of that way myself. Hey, my email is ‘bossydiva.’ I get to let down my hair when I play her and just go for it.”
Even though Cline died so young, Summers doesn’t see her as a tragic figure .
“She was a pretty woman and was so natural in front of a camera that I think she had the possibility of movies along with her music. She wasn’t done by a long shot. What happened to her was tragic, but she wasn’t a tragic figure,” Summers says.
After performing the show so many times over the years – this is Summers’ second Wichita run but Tasheff’s third – both actresses admit that it has become almost second nature to them. They have been able to pick the show up quickly, remembering original direction and blocking.
But Summers says she continually revisits Cline’s historic recordings to make sure that she preserves the sound that longtime fans revere.
“I’m not an impersonator, but I do lose myself in her. I emulate her glides, glissandos and vibrato. And I’m careful not to let my own style slip in.”
Summers says she is still learning about Cline whenever she talks with audiences after a performance.
“Most people of a certain age will have a story about Patsy. I’ve run into people who remember when she performed in Kansas. They’ve been very helpful in giving me a sense of what a character she was.”
Does Summers ever grow weary of the show after so many performances?
“People ask me that all the time and I have to say no, Every audience is different. I’m singing to a different audience every time,” Summers says. “That’s what keeps it fresh for me.”
If You Go
‘Always, Patsy Cline’
What: Musical remembrance of the late country singer told through her friendship with a Houston housewife who was her biggest fan
Where: Roxy’s Downtown, 412½ E. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (starts Feb. 8) through March 28
Tickets: $25 for Thursday evening and Sunday matinee, $25 for Friday-Saturday evening; optional down-home dinner for $15 extra at each performance. Call 316-265-4400.