Taking a break for a month after Christmas doesn’t mean the lights go out for legends at the Alabama Theatre.
Special shows will fill the next two weekends, first with Gail Bliss’ annual “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline” tribute, at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, then Ben Vereen will spend the night Jan. 25 “Steppin’ Out” with the Long Bay Symphony, benefiting the Pardue Family “Children in Need” Fund. Both stars made time last week by phone to chat about their respective shows.
Bliss, who spends five months a year singing in “One,” said her Cline show has fulfilled a January tradition for about seven years. She said this “whole separate technical production,” with its own sets and lights, works out best for her and the theater it its lone down time every year, because it’s “too big a stage changeover” from the “One” and two-month-long Christmas house shows for just one weekend.
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“It’s a theatrical presentation, as opposed to a concert,” Bliss said while waiting at John F. Kennedy Airport for a flight to Zurich, Switzerland.
The biographical journey takes audiences “back to 1963 and before Patsy’s heyday ... basically to another time,” Bliss said, counting her 17 costume changes as the story of Cline’s life unfolds.
Bliss, the director, said “the voice that drives the show” is the co-star, a disc jockey in Cline’s hometown in Virginia where her chops first rode the airwaves as a teen.
“In a flashback, he tells about her entire rise to fame,” Bliss said of the setting in 1963, when Cline’s life ended at age 30 in a plane crash.
The band’s interjection of jingles from the 1960s, as well as the musicians all having acting roles, also add to the flavor of the presentation so that it’s “not a one-woman show,” Bliss said.
She cannot nail down any one Cline recording that moves her most except the uniform quality in every song, such as “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces” and the Willie Nelson composition “Crazy,” and that she would have applied the same heart in something as simple as “The Farmer in the Dell.”
“She was honest and just a saint to the bone,” Bliss said. “She was the inventor; I’m the replicator.”
Bliss said Cline recorded “more than most people think,” with “early stuff that just got lost in the shuffle somehow,” and that her later material, all recorded within 15 months “made her for what she’s known today.”
That final stretch of music, produced by Owen Bradley, “smoothed out the sound,” Bliss said, “which was kind of consistent with Chet Atkins, Ray Price and Eddy Arnold” from that time.
Cline also was known as much in pop circles as in country, Bliss said, crediting her as a “crossover artist” pioneer who had listeners liking a sound without knowing they liked country music.
Even if audiences for “A Closer Walk” are aging, Bliss said people tickle her when parents or grandparents say, “This little girl sang every little song with you tonight.”
With five of her own CDs, including the first, “Gail Bliss and Patsy Cline,” made with the blessing of Cline’s widow, Charlie Dicks, and more recently, “It’s About Patsy Cline,” Bliss likes keeping her ties to country and gospel music tight.
Asked why few artists cover Cline’s tunes that stand out – outside of the occasional tribute collection, or Emmylou Harris redoing “Back in Baby’s Arms” – Bliss was frank: “She’s untouchable.”
Bliss said he goal in portraying Cline remains “to keep it as true to form as possible,” the result of spending two hours day listening to her records to appreciate her voice.
Declaring she doesn’t “look or sound like Patsy,” Bliss wants to make Cline’s whole “body of work” shine, reflecting her own renditions begun “with a good foundation.”
“Every night when I hit ‘Crazy,’ ” Bliss said, “by that point of the show, she and I are very aligned with her personality.”
Awakening with only smiles
Talking from home base in New York, Vereen said, “I can’t wait” to play the Grand Strand.
At age 66 and with nothing but positive energy, the entertainer of stage in theater and on television voiced his formula for longevity: simply awakening.
“I wake up every morning,” he said, “and you give praise and thanks for the honor and then try to make it a great day as best as I can.”
Speaking at 9 a.m., “on my way to dance class,” Vereen said he always stays active. Reprising “Brooklyn to Broadway” and envisioning plans for “Phantom Punch,” about boxer Muhammad Ali’s life keep him excited about this new year.
With a vast resume that includes Broadway shows such as winning a Tony Award for “Pippin,” playing Chicken George in the “Roots” TV mini-series, and lending his voice in the Nickelodeon cartoon series “Wonder Pets!” the Theater Hall of Fame inductee calls every show, especially with orchestras such as Long Bay, “a wonderful opportunity.”
“I’ve been blessed to be able to do what I do,” Vereen said, applauding audiences for continued support through the years, especially for charitable causes. “They touch me.”
His handling of requests for benefits, such as the Children in Need Fund – which helps youngsters in Lighthouse Care Centers in Conway and Augusta, Ga. – won’t let his heart skip a beat.
“They asked me to do it,” Vereen said, “therefore, I say yes. I am about that; that’s what I do.”
This “Steppin’ Out” production has gained a foothold across the country, Vereen said, happy to adapt it in every venue based on the audience and performance partners.
“I feed off the audience,” he said, “and what their vibrational pull says to me.”
Vereen said the main idea remains bringing awareness and impressing colleagues in entertainment to make a difference, on and off the stage.
“It’s about a community coming together,” he said.
Teaming up with Long Bay Symphony for a night, Vereen said he and his longtime accompanying trio love sharing a passion to perform “some of the best music in the universe.”
“Each one of those artists on the stage has the opportunity to bring forth their art,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Viewing art as something felt everywhere, Vereen also expressed concern about arts access and education falling “in trouble in certain places,” something to which he gives his all to reverse.
“The arts is part of our culture,” he said “and any civilization without culture and arts is no civilization at all.”
Vereen said art comes in so many forms, even the words that will make up this published interview.
“My idea is to continue to inspire people tor realize who they are,” he said.
Thinking back to his first show, “The King & I” – “it was off, off, off Broadway” – Vereen said he likes reprising one of those ditties as well as other Broadway productions in his life, which include “Fosse,” “Hair” and Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“The list goes on and on,” he said gratefully. “I share those with the audience and take a trip down memory lane.”
The numbers Vereen chooses mirror a part of him, a privilege he said audiences “have allowed me” to have.
“The songs are all part of my life,” he said. “I use my songs to express what’s going on inside of me.”
Vereen also sees himself as just one part of something bigger.
“I’m not unique,” he said. “We are all unique.”