By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Sixteen years ago, an award-winning musical theatre triple threat from the West Coast got offered an unusually specific starring role. One that would involve surprising low notes and some yodelling.
How’d you like to be our Patsy?
Sara-Jeanne Hosie, who was working at the Chemainus Theatre Festival at the time, couldn’t have foreseen where the Mayfield Theatre’s invitation to play Patsy Cline in a five-year-old musical revue/ homage, would lead, in an already busy career.
Since 2005 Hosie has starred in musicals from Les Miz to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She’s been Mary Poppins, Sally Bowles, and Velma Kelly in Chicago; she’s been Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and the Baker’s Wife in Sondheim’s Into The Woods, to sample from a crammed resumé. But threading through all of it is this: the actor/director/choreographer has become the country’s leading Patsy Cline.
Hosie has sung Crazy and Walking After Midnight on stages everywhere (except the east coast). And starting Tuesday, Hosie will be Patsy again, for the third time at the Mayfield in Dean Regan’s hit A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline.
“My debut as Patsy,” as Hosie puts it, a smile in her voice, was a chance to connect with a girlhood fave. “I was a wee thing,” she says of her 11-year-old self seeing A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline at the Charlottetown Festival. “I fell in love with her, and with that show.”
To play the country star herself involved being vetted by the Patsy Cline estate. “I had to put myself on tape, and it had to be approved…. I get it, they were trying to protect her legacy.” They must have liked what they heard.
Playing the character is not, needless to say, merely a matter of knowing the words, wearing the boots and not being blonde. Refashioning her voice to be Patsy was “a big journey,” Hosie says. “I don’t sing the way Patsy sings when I sing for myself…. It’s all about her placement: where do you place her in your voice? in your head? in your nose?” Ah, and “and the way she closes off her vowels.” And, OK, there’s also “her (signature) little yodel, that little break that switches from chest to head voice.”
“I’ve never wanted to be an impersonator,” says Hosie, who’s married to the actor Kevin Kruchkywich (an MP hopeful running in the Perth-Wellington riding). “I feel that’s so inauthentic if you’re just trying to sound like somebody…. I wanted to make her not cartoon-y! As an actor, I need to come from my own perspective, bring my own heart to those great songs. And trust that I’ve done enough vocally to capture the essence.”
What makes Patsy Cline so magnetic to generations of fans is that “she had real heart,” Hosie thinks. “And she had a lot of crap happen to her in her life,” a tragically short one as it happened (she died in a plane crash at age 30).
“She always sang from the heart…. Those big sad ballads sound like her heart was breaking. She had an amazing ability to communicate through music that way. And she was so honest; if she was emotional she’d stop herself,” on the edge of tears. “I’ve always loved that about her.”
That signature distinctions of The Voice are one thing, “an intricate challenge,” as Hosie agrees. But there’s the sheer size of the part, musically speaking. In a “normal” musical there might be six big songs for an actor in a lead role; in A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, there are 23.
“What takes the toll and tires the voice is the broken yodelling.” In a long run, with eight shows a week, those vocal demands make for a hermetic sort of life. “I definitely rest when I can,” says Hosie cheerfully.
Embedded in a long list of musical theatre credits — classics like South Pacific, off-centre Off-Broadway fare like Falsettos, contemporary groundbreakers like Fun Home (she was the middle Alison in the Vancouver Arts Club’s Canadian premiere in 2018) — is a love of country music. She doesn’t listen to it at home: “I’m a weird unicorn. I don’t think to put on music at home; music is my work, and I love to have no music when I’m not at work.” But “I love singing country music. And I’ve thought of writing my own country album.”
She arrived here from a summer at home in Stratford where she and Kruchkywich moved in 2012. “I’ve fared all right this year,” she says. Having a “fantastic husband and a great dog” helps.
There’s something irrepressibly energetic about Hosie. Evidently she’s never seen a to-do list she didn’t want to check off. “I can’t sit on my hands; I’m a forward momentum person,” Hosie says mildly. She’s been in the last three of Ross Petty’s Christmas pantos in Toronto (the 2020 edition was filmed). She’s directed a college production in her home town of Victoria. She adds, as a casual aside, that she opened a small business in Stratford.
FAWN is all about image consulting and personal styling, and it includes a boutique of hand-picked pieces, some “pre-loved” some new. She does a “Nosie Hosie” video interview blog (see YouTube links on her website sjhosie.com). “I wanted to be part of Stratford on a community level, and that led to becoming a small-business owner,” she says of a skill set boosted by a course at George Brown College in Toronto and a fearless willingness to ask questions. “Being part of the town has been a great adventure! I’ve been so lucky to have people pulling for me.”
“At heart I guess I’m a leader; I like gathering people.” Maybe that’s why Hosie is drawn to directing. “It uses so many parts of your brain; I like to have multiple challenges.”
“I only want to do the projects that bring me, well, joy!” she says. “The pandemic, when we had to stay home, taught me that….” And that has something material to do with her return to Patsy Cline, a role she figured she’d left forever after countless performances.
“I thought I’d put those boots away…. But having that time away was great. And now I’m really loving it. The band is the same. Sheldon Bergstrom (the production’s Little Big Man, Patsy’s DJ cohort and narrator) is the same.” On the first day of rehearsal, Hosie asked the company “does it feel like we ever left?”
“The band is always killer at the Mayfield. Van (musical director Van Wilmott, the Mayfield’s artistic director) is a real musician. The best part is that feeling of singing with a band. I know Patsy loved it too!”
What was it like to return to a role she’s played so often? “I was re-exercising my voice, trying to find Patsy’s low low notes. As soon as Derek Stremel started to play bass, those notes just came back to me. Fascinating!”
A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Written by: Dean Regan
Directed by: Van Wilmott
Starring: Sara-Jeanne Hosie, Sheldon Bergstom
Running: Sept. 14 through Oct. 31
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca