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Saved by the Songs 

Always, Patsy Cline is rescued by its namesake's songbook.

It's always tragic when a young person dies, since the aching wound of their unlived life forever echoes in the minds of friends and family. And that network of mourners is multiplied exponentially when the toes-up individual happens to be a celebrity.

So you'd think that a play about an iconic singer who died in a plane crash at 30 would present a chance to take a profound emotional journey. Nope. Ted Swindley, author of Always, Patsy Cline, decided to turn this tough and uncompromising woman into a walking jukebox. But even such a wretchedly written show can't torpedo this Carousel dinner-theater production, thanks to an outstanding performance in the lead role.

Before Patsy nose-dived into a Tennessee forest, she established herself as a country singer who could easily cross over and bleed all the available emotion out of pop as well as C&W songs. Her pure and powerful singing was riveting, and the trademark catch in her throat added just the right amount of poignancy.

As told in Always, her story doesn't rely on the tired Behind the Music arc of stardom-tragedy-redemption. Instead, it opts for something even worse: unadulterated star idolatry. It's seen through the eyes of Louise, an inveterate Patsy fan, who meets Miss Patsy and spends some quality girl time with the star in Louise's kitchen, fryin' up eggs. Other than that interlude, Louise spends her time making moon eyes and telling the audience how down to earth the singer is as she listens to Patsy on the radio or in the wings where Patsy is performing. Fortunately, playwright Swindley didn't trouble himself to write much of this tripe, letting the Patsy Cline songbook dominate the show. And this is where the Carousel production soars, thanks to some fabulous singing by Christine Mild, who plays Patsy. It's hard to match the Cline voice, but Mild comes close, her clear notes rising effortlessly to capture Patsy-perfect phrasing in classic songs such as "Crazy" and "Back in Baby's Arms."

Even though the little break in her voice feels forced at times, Mild handles almost 30 of Cline's numbers with such hypnotic grace and sure-handed control, you just want to ease back and let her sing all night long. Evolving from the croon-yodeling of "I Fall to Pieces" to the silky threads of "You Belong to Me," Mild changes wardrobe from cowgirl to cocktail dress, but never misses a beat.

In this two-person show, Lily Mercer plays Louise with a good-ol'-gal sensibility, but she overdoes the two-finger look-at-me gesture, and her performance as the adoring acolyte feels constrained by the playwright's one-track love fest.

Director Donna Drake squeezes out a couple of nice moments between the two women (sharing confidences, Louise notes that "Secrets are no fun unless you tell somebody"). But for the most part, Drake wisely just gets out of the way and lets Mild do her thing, backed by a tight six-piece band led by Steve Parsons. When you leave Carousel after this production, you'll have to admit, in the words of the Act One closer, "She Got You."

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