Cullman’s own Sara Catherine Wheatley has another persona — the late, great Patsy Cline. The show, “Always….Patsy Cline” will run Jan. 24 through Feb. 2, in Tuscaloosa. This will be the fourth time Wheatley has been cast in the role of the legendary country singer. The first time was when Wheatley was a college student at the University of Alabama.
“It’s interesting to see how my adaptation of the character has evolved,” Wheatley reflected. “I was 22 years old the first time I was cast in the role of Cline. Now, at 30, I can look back and see how I have grown with the part, both professionally and personally.”
As a youngster, Wheatley danced at the Dale Sorrano Dance Studio in Birmingham. “That’s probably where I made up my mind that I wanted to do this for a living,” she said. She was the ripe old age of ten at the time.
Sara Catherine graduated from Cullman High School in 2002. While in middle and high school she sang in church, and took part in the Summerfest at the Music Theatre in Birmingham (now the Red Mountain Theatre Company).
She cut her teeth as an actress when she played the part of Liesl in The Sound of Music, and later as Laurey in Oklahoma, both staged at Looney’s Tavern in Winston County. “Those were my first professionally paid jobs,” she recalls. “That ampi-theatre seated over 500 people, which was a huge crowd to me at that time.”
In 2006, she was awarded her bachelor of arts degree in theatre from the University of Alabama.
Determined to make it in a notoriously tough field, she never even considered a backup plan, and credits her “incredibly supportive parents” with her success. Her dad, Jim Thomason, and her mom, Sara Baker, are from Cullman.
Wheatley moved to Oregon in 2007, where she immediately began auditioning for parts in the area. “I got my first gig in three months,” she said. “It was a production of ‘Godspell’. After that, things just kept lining up for me, although I always continued to work my ‘day’ job.”
Those day jobs, being a nanny, working at a farmer’s market and such, sustained her while she honed her craft at night. “It’s a lot of work, but I love it,” she said enthusiastically. “It takes you away from your regular life, and if you don’t love it, you probably won’t do it for long.”
Currently she is working at a fitness studio called Barre3, which helps her to keep in shape for the strenuous workouts of the stage.
“But it’s the theatre that keeps me sane,” she laughed.
She has lots of experience under her belt for a thirty-year-old actress. She’s played Annie Oakley, in “Annie, Get Your Gun,” a part she says she can identify with. “Annie was spunky. She goes for what she wants, and she is hard-headed,” she grinned. “It’s my favorite because of the Irvin Berlin score. ‘Annie’ has, in my opinion, some of the best songs in the musical theatre cannon."
Now, the fourth time around as Patsy Cline, she can also relate to the American icon with the pure, unadulterated, country voice. She didn’t even have to learn the accent.
“Patsy Cline was an incredibly strong woman,” said Sara Catherine thoughtfully. “She paved the way for women in the country music industry. The first time I did this show and started researching her, I was so drawn to her strength and even more her honesty. In a business completely dominated by men, she held her own — and not only rose to the top, but was respected and admired. That wasn't such an easy task in the ’50s and early ’60s.”
“She laid everything out on the line and that comes across in the passion and vulnerability in her voice. I try to channel that. It is such a gift to portray a woman who brought so much joy to so many people,” she said.
“I just love to watch her,” said her understandably proud mom, Sara Baker. “She lights up the stage and makes something so difficult appear effortless!”
“I’d loved Patsy Cline for a long time, in fact, ‘Crazy’ was my standard karaoke song,” said Sara Catherine. “But that summer after I was cast in the part, I started really examining her music in order to capture her voice and nuances, until I became familiar with the spirit of Patsy Cline.”
She tried for every single note, and she must have hit them spot on because she’s had people who sat in with the late star’s band that have made it a point to come and tell her how much like Patsy she (Sara Catherine) sounds. Sara said, “One man who had played drums with her (Patsy) said that when he closed his eyes (and listended to Sara) he thought he could be listening to Patsy.”
It seems a touch ironic to see Wheatley on stage at the same age Cline was when she was killed in a plane crash while on tour. Transformed by wigs of the era, make-up and period costumes, it’s almost like seeing a ghost.
“I do particularly love to see her as Patsy,” said her mom. “I’ve been a Patsy Cline fan all my life and have always loved to hear Sara Catherine sing ‘Crazy’, which is my favorite. But this show is so much more than that. It is almost like she ‘becomes’ Patsy.
“It is not just the songs, but it is also the warmth and humor that she projects. It is uncanny,” said Baker. “Sara Catherine’s own physical appearance is nothing like Patsy Cline — she’s a tall, slender redhead, but when she puts on that wig and makeup and walks out onstage in those wonderful 1950s costumes, the transformation is magical.”
“Growing up in the South shaped a lot of this character,” she pointed out. “I’m happy to bring this performance back to Tuscaloosa.”
In addition to acting and singing in the theatre, Sara Catherine also writes and sings on a different kind of stage with her collaborator, Eric Holder.
They dubbed their band “The Lucky Ones” and \ carved out a niche for themselves in Portland with a sound that has been described as “country meeting rock, bluegrass, R&B and dance – pressed through a pop filter”. They released their first album, “Waiting For The Rain” in November. Colorado native, Holder, is said to have been relentless in his passion for the music of Duane Allman and Trey Anastasio, among other serious guitar purists. (It is the opinion of this writer that Holder out-Duaned Duane Allman on the track “Movin’On’but you judge for yourself, it’s free). The entire album can also be downloaded free of charge, from the band’s website theluckyonesmusic.com.
Of the songs she has written, her favorite, probably, she says is “Movin’ On”. “When I heard it played live for the first time it was very emotional. The song is so close to my heart.”
She remembers that when they heard the drums and bass come in, she and Eric just looked at each other and smiled, “Life had been breathed into our work. It was a very magical moment.”
Following the two-week run of “Always… Patsy Cline” in Tuscaloosa, opening Jan. 24 and closing Feb. 2, Wheatley plans to return to Portland where she will get serious about working with the band, “The Lucky Ones”. “This is the year of the band,” she smiled. “This is when we really get to work and make it happen.”
“Always... Patsy Cline”
Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 - Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014
Ticket info for “Always….Patsy Cline” theatretusc.com
Box Office 205-391-2277