Five years ago, Traci Lyn Thomas and Mary Ellen Cerroni were strangers playing best friends in a musical play as unfamiliar to them as they were to each other. Five years later, they are good friends and great stage-partners-in-crime, playing the same characters in a production they’ve performed dozens of times.
Thomas and Cerroni return to the Durango Arts Center for the revival of “Always…Patsy Cline,” five years after the first run. The show begins Thursday and runs for two weeks only.
The musical play, written by Ted Swindley, centers on the true story of the relationship between Cline and a Houston housewife/fan-turned-friend, Louise Seger, just as Cline was coming to know stardom in the late 1950s. Returning with Thomas, who plays the iconic Cline, and Cerroni, who plays Seger, are director Theresa Carson, music director Scott Hagler as well as Diane Welle’s brilliant costumes.
Despite the familiarity, the revival is no reunion for Thomas and Cerroni. After the first run of “Always,” the two stayed in touch, became friends (as did their husbands) and visited each other’s homes. The experience of the first run and the friendly, shared comfort and chemistry between them has made preparing for the revival much easier, a process that required just nine rehearsals as opposed to, say, the 30 typically required for such productions.
“We have a shorthand now, where we might not have understood what we were saying five years ago,” Thomas said in her endearing Texas twang. “We just communicate so much better now.”
The preceding five years have brought changes for both Thomas and Cerroni, changes that have resulted in different approaches to their performances. Some of them are physical – voices, knees, backs – the product of being five years older. But each actress is in a different place, physically, emotionally or otherwise.
Thomas, whose crisp and soaring vocals couldn’t have aged a drop, since has moved from Durango to Boise, Idaho, then to Concan, a speck of a town in Texas Hill Country. Cerroni, who still lives in Farmington, endured a couple of surgeries and had to quit her job teaching elementary school music to care for her aging parents. The changes have brought new understanding to the production with which they’d become so familiar.
“When you look at the dialogue, what you thought it meant five years ago, you look at (lines) now and go, ‘Oh, I know what this means now,’” said Cerroni, who also said the comic role of Seger and her over-the-top exuberance, silliness and folksy aphorisms fits her, as Seger would say, like a glove. “Sometimes the way you say it is different because you give it different meaning.”
Thomas agreed, adding that having done the show for almost four months the first time around has brought a more thorough understanding to the production.
“You change it up a little bit, add a little more depth to it, because it’s not just about learning the words and getting it up there, it’s about going a little further into the characters,” she said.
Lest anyone who saw the original DAC production think they can bypass the revival for been-there-done-that reasons, the current production brings plenty of changes. The biggest introduces projections of vintage backdrops and locales in lieu of more traditional sets and staging. Director Carson said the change was made to give the production a firmer sense of nostalgia and place, like The Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium circa the late 1950s or the honky-tonk bar in the Esquire Ballroom in Houston, Texas.
“Even though it’s a revival, you don’t want to do the exact same thing. You want to keep it fresh,” Carson said, alluding to the growing use of screens and multimedia in contemporary theater. “There has to be something new. That’s a challenge. And yet, people still may be expecting some of the same things.”
Despite breathing life into the revival, adding the projections has presented challenges for Thomas and Cerroni. Before, they had more props to guide them through scenes, props that provided comfort and security, like salt and pepper shakers, coffee cups, silverware. Some of the image projection changes that.
“Now it’s images, but we don’t see the images. The audience sees the images,” Cerroni said. “So you’re in that kitchen, but you’re doing make-believe.”
The show, which opened Thursday, runs through June 28 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The 2010 production had an extended run and was performed well into September. This time around, audiences might not want to dilly-dally.