July 2015

Always Crazy for Patsy Cline : Wolfe Lights up Main Street Theatre

Author: KITTY BARTELL | Photographer: Craig Mitchelldyer

Like a well-tended garden, Hilton Head Island’s 2015 summer theatre scene is flourishing, and Savannah Summer Theatre Institute (SSTI) producer and director Benjamin Wolfe is contributing to the bounty, showing off a green thumb with three productions on his docket. Eager to bring the beloved show Always … Patsy Cline to the Main Street Theatre, Wolfe’s production takes audiences to a time when radio dials were tuned in to listen to the storied singer from front porches, to kitchen radios, to dimly-lit dashboards on dusty road trips.

Bringing writer Ted Swindley’s Always … Patsy Cline to a Lowcountry stage has been a long-awaited labor of love for Wolfe. “I saw this show in college at the Savannah Theatre, and I kind of fell in love with it,” Wolfe said. “The performers were wonderful, and it really left an impression on me of how well this show could do, and how well audiences responded. Any time I see a show, I find myself looking around the audience from a producer’s eye; the people were just loving it. I made a mental note to myself: I want to direct this show one day.”

Always … Patsy Cline is based on the real-life story of Patsy Cline’s friendship with Louise Seger, a Houston housewife. After hearing her on Arthur Godfrey’s show, Seger became a devoted Patsy Cline fan. Following an accidental meeting in 1961, when Seger went to see Cline’s show, the two women became close friends, bonding over the stuff of life—marriage, children, friendships, career—exchanging letters and telephone calls until Cline’s 1963 death in a plane crash at the age of 30.

With SSTI, Wolfe’s Hilton Head-based performing arts program for high school students, moving full speed into a busy summer, the stars needed to come into a serendipitous alignment for him to envision adding Patsy to his already packed production schedule of Big Fish the Musical on Hilton Head and Little Shop of Horrors in Savannah—and it seems they have. “I had looked at doing this two other times, but the timing just wasn’t right,” Wolfe said. “I then found out that Main Street Theatre was going to be dark for July. I thought that maybe this was the time… even though I have two other shows running at the same time.”

Wolfe began by virtually auditioning actors for the roles. “My first step was finding my Patsy Cline. I went on YouTube, and unannounced to the actresses, I started auditioning Patsys. I narrowed it down to three that I really enjoyed, and by virtue of the theater community being a small, tight-knit group, I had mutual friends with all three on Facebook and started collecting references. Then I narrowed it down to the one I knew I wanted to be my Patsy,” Wolfe said. His Patsy, Nashville singer/songwriter Sara Catherine Wheatley, has performed the role over 100 times.

Alabama native Wheatley knows there’s something special about this show. With parents who loved Patsy Cline, Wheatley was drawn to the singer’s music from a young age. “Crazy” was one of my karaoke standards when I was in college,” she said. “I did it one night, and somebody in the audience said the community theater in Tuscaloosa was doing a Patsy Cline show; they said I should audition. I did and was cast in the show. That was 2005.”

Sara Catherine Wheatley sings 27 hit Patsy Cline songs in this memorable evening.

Wheatley recently moved to Nashville from Portland, Oregon where she spent seven and a half years acting full time, and where she played Patsy in the Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s longest running production of any show ever, selling out every performance. A member of the rock/country duo Two Lucky, the move to Nashville has brought Wheatley to an energized place, “We’re playing our music, meeting lots of people, doing some co-writes. Being in Nashville is always inspiring.”

With fond childhood memories of going to the beach at Garden City near Myrtle Beach, the offer to play Patsy on Hilton Head was a welcome and enticing development. “It’s always interesting to revisit the same character being in a completely different place in my life. I feel more deeply connected with her and the character every time I do it. I feel so lucky to do it,” Wheatley said.

“The role of Louise and Misty [Rowe] just really fell into our laps,” Wolfe said. “She [Rowe] has some family here in South Carolina. The licensing agent for the Patsy Cline Estate is friends with Misty and contacted me to ask if I had found my Louise. She put us in touch, and lo and behold, she was able to make it work to come out here.” Misty Rowe, veteran television, movie, and stage actor, TV LAND Entertainer Award winner, director, creator of Misty’s Magical Mountaintop, and beloved Hee Haw Honey for 19 years, will celebrate her thousandth performance as Louise Seger during her run on Hilton Head Island.

Recalling her first turn in Always … Patsy Cline at Tony Orlando’s Yellow Ribbon Theater in Branson, Missouri, the real Louise Seger made an unexpected appearance. “It was opening night, and somebody told me Louise Seger is here—third row, aisle,” Rowe said. “The theater had bought me a $15 wig; it was too small and looked like cotton candy. During the performance, I was leading the band and tossed my head like I was taught to stop the band, and the wig flew off my head. There was a huge laugh, and poor Patsy didn’t know what was going on. I looked around and there was my wig on the floor.” Rowe retrieved the wig, and without the aid of a mirror, replaced it on her head—backwards—and continued on with the show. “Louise Seger walked out.”

Delivering sold out performances across the nation, Wheatley and Rowe will play 18 performances on Hilton Head this July.

“It wasn’t the warm fuzzy meeting you expected,” Rowe said. Buying a new wig at her own expense, Rowe said Seger returned for a performance a few weeks later and graciously provided Rowe with some valuable insight into her character, beginning an exchange of letters with the actress, much like Seger had with Patsy Cline. Likely no one has better embodied the spirit of Louise Seger than Misty Rowe.

The play is driven by Seger’s narrative and remembrances of her friendship with Cline, while the singer floats in and out crooning 27 of the songs that made her famous, such as “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walking After Midnight,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Wolfe is thrilled to welcome Nashville’s Merf Music Group’s Bobby Hamilton as musical director. “I would challenge anyone to know Patsy Cline’s music better,” he said. Hamilton will be leading three local musicians along with a special guest fiddle player from North Carolina. The music anchors the show, Wolfe said. “As soon as the first few chords of each song play, the audience either applauds or [imagine Wolfe drawing in a deep, audible, breath].”

Gratefully tending his 2015 summer garden of 51 artists, technicians, musicians, and front-of-house staff, Wolfe’s theatrical visions are blooming all over the Lowcountry. It’s as though Patsy Cline’s soul emanating from the crackling old kitchen radio is creating an expressive, bountiful harvest. 

Always … Patsy Cline is playing July 7-26 at Main Street Theatre, Hilton Head Island. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit patsyclinehhi.com or call (843) 642-8845.

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