.Jewel Theatre’s Upbeat Adieu

C&W Love Letter

Country and western classic tunes rocked the theater on opening night of Always … Patsy Cline. From C&W superstar Patsy Cline (Julie James) and the outrageous burlesquing of Texan superfan Louise Seger (Diana Torres Koss) to the boys in the band, led by Colin Hannon, the final production of the Jewel Theatre offered a feel-good evening to remember.

Always … Patsy Cline is the brainchild of musical entrepreneur Ted Swindley, and this musical show fits the talents of lead performer and Jewel founder Julie James from her bouffant hairdo down to her kitten heels. Prepare to be blown away by James’ perfectly amplified vocal chops as she croons, cries, wails and belts her way through Cline’s greatest hits. Hank Cochran’s “I Fall to Pieces” and “She’s Got You,” Hank Williams Sr.’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” by Don Gibson and Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” were some of the show-stopping favorites throughout the brisk two-hour show.

The show is based on the many letters exchanged by Cline and Seger, whose friendship began when Cline was performing in Houston in the late 1950s. The two women met one night at the Esquire Ballroom, and instantly hit it off. The friendship endured until Cline’s tragic end.

As the Jewel production opens, Seger (Koss) is seated at her kitchen table, reminiscing about that fateful night in Houston, and as the mesmerizing Koss narrates their story, James steps into the spotlight and starts weaving a spell that spans from country to cross-over pop, with a lot of homespun gospel thrown in.

Full disclosure: I had no idea that Julie James had this kind of vocal expertise. The show is irresistible, with a terrific back-up band interjecting itself playfully into the action. While the camaraderie between the two women shines brightly throughout the 20 musical numbers, the individual performances each work their magic.

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Time to lavish praise on the phenomenon that is Diana Torres Koss, a multitalented, high-wattage performer who can do it all. “Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit!” she quips, offering opening night’s eager audience an endless procession of raunchy, good ol’ girl wisdom.

Koss is the show’s ringmaster, whipping up the audience, winding up the band, and commiserating with Patsy at the dawn of her stardom.  Koss’ physical comedy, impeccable smart-ass timing, and ability to milk a line, a word, a gesture for all it’s worth are the hallmarks of a seasoned performer. Most of all, it’s clear from their on-stage chemistry that she and James had a ball working together.

Ah, Julie James—an actor who can also belt out a steady stream of hits from the mid-century American songbook. James can own a stage with the best of them, and poured into her costumes—sequins and high heels, cowboy shirts and boots—she proceeded to take us on a nostalgic tour through a roster of Grand Ole Opry greats. James’ Broadway-sized contralto carried the soulful, honky-tonk lyrics of desire, betrayal and love lost.

And here’s where the assembled musicians who provide the continuous soundtrack serve her well. Led by pianist Hannon, a man who knows his way around the ivories, the band gave James exactly the sort of high-energy, bluesy backup that Cline herself would have expected. That would be Will Fourt/Charlie Joe Wallace on steel guitar, Jeff Adams on guitar, Matt Bohn on acoustic bass, Zack Olsen on drums and Ben Jackson on country fiddle/mandolin. Kudos to all these good ol’ boys, who along with Hannon kept the pace moving toward a poignant ending, followed by an uproarious encore. Nice job pulling it all together by director Shaun Carroll.

Go see Always … Patsy Cline, a deep dive into some treasured music and spunky humor. Go see it because it’s a rousing send-off to a theater company that’s given us so much to enjoy. Bittersweet? You bet. A chance to sing along with a treasured actor? Priceless. Love you, Julie James, and loved your show.

Jewel Theatre Company’s final production, Always … Patsy Cline, plays through May 26 at Colligan Theater, 1010 River St., Santa Cruz; jeweltheatre.net.


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