After being cast as legendary country singer in the musical play “Always…Patsy Cline,” Shelly Lynn Walsh had two weeks to learn 27 songs.
Every evening, she would learn two to three songs — pouring over lyrics, watching black-and-white videos of the singer who died at age 30 in a 1963 plane crash and reading “Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline,” a 2014 collection of essays edited by Warren R. Hofstra.
A video of Cline performing “Come On In,” with her characteristic nods and head tilts, was particularly informative. “Her mannerisms are so specific in that song that” she used them in all the other songs she would perform, Walsh said. “It was more about taking things I thought were helpful to mimic just as a way into her character. I started out with mimicking her and then from there, I was able to create a real-life person I could relate to as an actor.”
Musical Director Marci Shegogue had only three rehearsals with Walsh before the show’s premiere dates in Frederick, Maryland. Each time, Walsh tried out about eight songs, honing her inflections and pronunciations. “By end of third rehearsal, she had all of them. It was pretty amazing,” Shegogue said. “I just fine-tuned, but for the most part, she did a ton of homework on her own, which I am really impressed with.”
Learning so many songs in such a short period, Walsh said, was one of the scariest things she has had to do in her career. “I just graduated from Rider University in May, so I am used to sitting down and cramming, but I wasn’t completely confident that I was going to be able to do it,” she said. “I think I have learned so much from this experience. I’m honestly just proud of myself and proud of this team for putting this show together so quickly and making it what it is. It’s all about focus and dedication to the craft.”
After a six-show set at Sky Stage in Frederick, “Always…Patsy Cline” will come to Germantown’s BlackRock Center for the Arts from Sept. 13 to 16. The production is the first from Free Range Humans, a new immersive entertainment company based in Frederick that plans to take on a wide variety of projects from site-specific theater to augmented reality pieces.
With a partnership at BlackRock, the company aims to do musicals that feature small professional casts with high musical value. Free Range Humans’ Producing Artistic Director Elizabeth Lucas noted that the company started with this show “because it seems like a good way to introduce ourselves with something we know is going to go across really well.”
The two-woman play focuses on the relationship between Cline and Louise Seger, one of her biggest fans, who ended up becoming her pen pal. The show is named for the way Cline would end her letters. “When you bond with someone at a vulnerable time and that person understands your vulnerability and steps up to protect you, there is something really lasting about that,” Lucas observed. “Patsy and Louise met at a very vulnerable time for Patsy. It was her first show back after giving birth to her child — at a time when her husband was telling her ‘You should just stop’. …(Louise) approaches her as a super fan, but quickly takes her under her wing and advocates for her and makes sure she is taken care of, so that kind of relationship can happen very quickly.”
Walsh had seen the show once before at a summer theater – it is a frequently produced musical and an Off-Broadway hit — and always wanted to do an iconic real-life person role. “All of the music is so interesting to me,” she said. “Her story was so interesting. It’s not often you can take on a show where you get to sing like you are in a concert. That was really intriguing to me as an actor.”
Shegogue put together a six-person band from various backgrounds and different musical genres to accompany Walsh. “People have come up to us and said, ‘How long have you been accompanying this singer?’ and we say, ‘Just for this show’,” she said. The musicians are local and “play all kinds of music.”
The audience’s reaction has been Shegogue’s favorite part of the shows. She has heard sighs and seen smiles as songs are announced. She hopes people will relate to Cline as a person and experience the magic of her music.
“I want the audience to leave humming her songs and remembering what an amazing performer and person she was,” Shegogue said. “She lived a pretty short life and a lot of our audiences have tended to be older.
“I don’t want her music to be forgotten. I’m hoping to bring audiences in that know a little bit or have heard of her but may not know all her songs in addition to the people who have been fans of hers forever. I feel like her music should live on.”
“Always…Patsy Cline” will be performed Sept. 13 through 16 at the BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. For more information and tickets, ranging from $25 to $40, visit blackrockcenter.org or call 301-528-2260.