If you go
What: “Always ... Patsy Cline,” the music-based story of the legendary country singer’s friendship with a fan, directed by John McKerrow
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays day through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 29
Where: Blackburn Hall, Sugden Community Theatre, 701 Fifth Ave. S., Naples
Admission: 35 for adults and $15 for children 18 and younger
Tickets: (239) 263-7990, by fax (239) 434-7772, or online at naplesplayers.org
It’s hard not to take a country fan’s ear to the voice that rolls out from Jessica Berent’s voice mail message. There’s an irresistible temptation to look for some characteristic in common with the silken contralto of the late Patsy Cline.
Berent would cringe at that. “I only hope people will remember that I’m a person who is playing Patsy Cline,” the Fort Myers resident says.
She’ll be asking them to summon up that fact around 27 times every night, because that’s how many of the iconic crossover artist’s songs Berent has to sing for “Always ... Patsy Cline.” The Naples Players production of it opened Wednesday at Sugden Theatre, and Berent will be duplicating Cline’s famous hits three nights a week and at Sunday matinees for the entire month.
“I have something like 30 solos. The one saving grace is that most of her songs are not more than 2½ minutes,” she says.
Even if she is a bit underage for personal memories of Cline, Berent says her mother and grandfather were both “huge fans” of the ‘50s era singing legend, who was killed in a plane crash in 1963 while still in her prime, at age 31. Berent knew Cline’s music long before she auditioned for the role.
“I love Patsy. It’s always been a dream to play this role,” asserts Berent, who is in her first Naples Players production. “I love her music.
“Once they cast me in the role, Naples Players sent me the script and all the scores for the songs. They also sent me a CD compilation of all her songs,” she adds. “I already knew a lot of her songs, but I’ve learned some I hadn’t heard before that I really like.” Among them: “Three Cigarettes (in an Ashtray).”
The music-based tale of a fan who befriends the star is based on a true story, and the songs in “Always” are ones Cline sang, although she may not have been associated with them. She toiled for years at a country label before a national TV appearance took her into millions of households. Among the tunes in “Always” are treasures from her early years or live performances that were made hits by other artists: “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (Joe Turner/Bill Haley) and “Stupid Cupid” (Connie Francis) and “Tennessee Waltz” (Patti Page).
Cline’s major hits, of course, are part of the play. They will be recognizable to both pop and country listeners when Cline, in her brief career, dominated both charts: “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces, ”Sweet Dreams” and “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
Berent has been studying music since age 10, and she’s a theater veteran of Minneapolis productions from “Annie” to “Guys and Dolls” to “Urinetown.” Still, she says she learned some tricks studying her role with Naples Players music director Charles Fornara.
“What I learned in music lessons is that you always support all your notes (from the diaphragm). .But in country music they just let their notes break and yodel a lot. Charlie told me what that is basically is singing unsupported notes. I had to put away everything I’d learned to sing country.”
It’s a daunting repertoire to learn as well. Still, Berent is more impressed with her costar, Kathleen Gravatt, who plays her fan, Louise Seger: “She’s onstage every minute of the play and she’s got pages and pages of dialogue. I’ve actually got very few lines.”
When Berent is offstage, she’s still busy, however: “Every time I’m offstage I’m spending every minute getting out of one costume and into another.”