ELLSWORTH — One of the highest compliments Nick Turner ever received for a show was an angry letter. The handwritten note (“it was a long letter!” says Turner) came from a woman who had seen a Patsy Cline show produced by Turner at a dinner theater he ran with his wife in Denver.
“She said ‘I can’t believe I paid $45 for dinner and a show to watch an actress lip sync,’” Turner said.
That actress was Gina Shuh-Turner, and she wasn’t lip syncing. Shuh-Turner (Nick’s wife) had spent weeks rehearsing and days listening to popular recordings of the Nashville country-pop great’s songs, marking the sheet music to match Cline’s improvisational timing and style.
“I wanted to make it sound like her,” says Shuh-Turner, adding that her training as a classical soprano was a far cry from Cline’s husky, operatic country style. “At the beginning it didn’t come naturally for me.”
“A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline,” which begins its two-weekend run at The Grand on Thursday, June 21, will be Shuh-Turner’s third time playing Cline. She has played her once in this same production, in Denver, and once in a production of “Always Patsy,” a different play about Cline’s life.
“A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline” tells the story of its namesake’s short but decorated career as one of the nation’s rising female country stars in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Shuh-Turner will perform 21 of Cline’s beloved hits, backed by a five-piece band led by freelance piano vocalist, jazz musician and music director Colin Graebert. Tim McCluskey, a Registered Maine Guide and local educator, will play several roles, including that of Little Big Man, a disc jockey who chronicles Cline’s career via radio broadcasts throughout the show.
It is McCluskey’s second production at The Grand (he played 13 characters in the recent reprisal of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”). Graebert has been on The Grand stage “many times,” and also will be teaching there this summer.
Patsy Cline died in a plane crash on a stormy night in the woods of Tennessee in 1963, at the age of 30. The Virginia-born woman had begun performing 15 years earlier, first on a local radio show while working as a drug-store soda jerk and waitress to help support her single mother and two siblings. Cline (who was born Virginia Patterson Hensley) became a fixture of the radio and variety show circuit, performing regularly with Jimmy Dean (of country music and smoked sausage fame).
Cline recorded several songs with little success before her country-pop ballad “Walkin’ After Midnight” in 1957, which was a hit on both pop and country charts. Later came “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy,” written by Willie Nelson. She continued to be celebrated after her death, and was the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Her influence is far-reaching. She has been cited as an inspiration by artists ranging from Trisha Yearwood and k. d. Lang to Reba McEntire and Wynonna Judd.
While The Grand has long put on community theater productions, “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline” will be the first professional production staged at the theater, according to Turner. Most professional productions, which can run into the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars, are beyond the reach of a nonprofit’s budget, but a smaller-cast was manageable, says Turner, who hopes to bring additional live theater to the stage in the future.
“It’s an adventure for The Grand as well,” Turner said. “I want to see how it goes and eventually leverage it into a summer repertoire with professional performers — when we have air conditioning.”
“There’s a category of community theater, which there will always be,” says Turner, but “Patsy Cline is our first experiment with ‘What would professional theater look like at The Grand?’”
The woman playing the title role has a storied and decorated background in musical theater (“it’s my love”), which she fell in love with after seeing “Les Miserables.”
“I was hooked,” says Shuh-Turner. “That was it.”
She has performed off-Broadway in “The Fantasticks” (the world’s longest-running musical) and won several awards for best actress in musicals in Denver, including “Ruthless” and “John and Jen.” She teaches voice to students locally and as far away as South Korea (via Skype).
Although she didn’t consider herself a country singer, the genre “isn’t that far from musical theater,” says Shuh-Turner, and Cline’s sounds transcended Southern twang.
“She was known as the opera singer of the country world.”
Graebert and Shuh-Turner worked closely together to perfect the numbers.
“The songs actually sound quite a bit different based on who the musicians are.”
Turner says he hopes to shed a little light on Cline, who is occasionally confused with Dolly Parton and other leading women country stars.
“It’s a jukebox musical,” says Turner. “It’s just fun.”