Bradford Kenney is humble enough to know that the success of the Ogunquit Playhouse is not his doing.

As the historic theater celebrates its 80th anniversary this summer, Kenney understands that his role as executive artistic director is more about not messing with a good thing. The theater is a national landmark in a community known for its summer fun.

“The old lady is in a great spot,” says Kenney, who begins his seventh season at the helm. “She has heritage. We know that, and live with that heritage every day. Our success has a lot to do with the community as well. We have a lot of support from our community. We have had a really nice string of years, and things look very optimistic for the future.”

The playhouse begins its 80th season this week with “Always … Patsy Cline.” TV star and all-around funny lady Sally Struthers is back in the role of Louise Seger, the country singer’s fan and friend. She played the role in 2003 and 2004 at the playhouse. Carter Calvert, who won a Tony Award nomination for the Broadway show “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” stars as Cline.

This is a banner season at the playhouse. Kenney has assembled a season of fun shows and classics, and has hired major stars to come in and liven things up.

In addition to “Always … Patsy Cline,” the season includes an all-new production of “South Pacific,” based on the 2008 Tony-winning Lincoln Center revival; “Damn Yankees” starring Carson Kressley, with a new twist in the story that sets the show at Fenway Park in Boston; Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5: The Musical,” which will feature a return of Struthers; and “Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story,” which closes the season.

As much as he wants to spread credit around — “our success is based on the strengths of everyone in the building,” he says — Kenney can claim credit for raising artistic standards at the theater.

Under his helm, the theater has won numerous awards that affirm Ogunquit’s artistic excellence. In recent years, audiences have come to expect Broadway-quality shows at Ogunquit.

That quality promises to continue with “Always Patsy Cline.” The musical is based on the true story of Cline’s friendship with Seger, who was a fan and became a confidante through a series of letters exchanged between the two women until Cline died in a plane crash at age 30 in 1963. The show features many of Cline’s most popular songs, including “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Walking After Midnight.”

Calvert’s credits include a European tour of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and the lead role of Grizabella in the national tour of “Cats.” Maine audiences have seen her in “Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway.” She played Cline most recently in a winter run at the Cincinnati Playhouse.

“I have been a fan of Patsy Cline since I was 7 years old,” she said. “My father was a big fan. We had a Ford Fairmont, and it had an 8-track. He was always torturing us with Charlie Pride or Loretta Lynn, but one day he brought home an 8-track tape of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits.”

Since then, Calvert has been singing Patsy Cline songs. As a 7-year-old, she had no idea what it meant to sing about heartbreak and loss. But with life experiences, the songs mean more to her now.

“I feel a real kinship with the music and an understanding of some of the things she is singing about,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why her music is so timeless. She touches on themes that everyone can relate to.”

Through her research, Calvert has grown to admire Cline as a person.

“She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. She was a fierce and loyal friend to the end,” she said. “Even though she was a big country star, she never forgot where she came from. She was kind to her fans. I admire that about her. She was a real woman’s woman.”

Struthers infuses her role with energy and humor. She has played Seger more than 900 times during the last 12 years, and has shaped the role more than any other actress.

Her performance wakes up the show. It could be a drearily sad play, but not with Struthers on stage. She finds every moment for humor, and makes the most of it.

“Patsy’s life wasn’t perfect,” Struthers said. “Her relationship with her husband wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t TV-worthy. For her to pass away at 30 years old in a plane crash is just tragic. Eighty to 90 percent of her songs were bleeding-heart songs, songs that ripped your heart out with sadness. That plaintiveness in her voice makes you weep buckets.

“If Louise isn’t funny, then the audience isn’t going to leave on a high note. I have found a way to make Louise over the top. It works for me. I don’t know if it works for everyone, but it works for me.”

The real Seger died just a few years ago. Struthers never met her — indeed, she never sought her out. She worried that if she actually met Seger, she might tone down her portrayal out of guilt for making her such a big personality.

The Ogunquit show is directed by David Galligan, who most recently directed Rita Moreno’s one-woman show “My Life Without Makeup” in California.

Like Calvert, he grew up with Cline’s music. “I was plugging the jukebox as a teenager, and I played ‘Walking After Midnight’ time after time,” he said.

Galligan has directed this show once before, with Struthers. This is the first time he has worked with Calvert, whom he described as “quite beautiful, and she sings like an angel. She sings full out, to the heavens.”

With the Ogunquit production, Galligan tweaks the show to establish a bond with the women sooner. He takes the song “Shake, Rattle and Roll” from the second act and inserts it early in the show.

“I make it all about playing pots and pans and colanders, and it’s become this stomping number,” he said. “We play everything in the kitchen. It immediately bonds the women, and it’s very fun.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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