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Laura Stracko as Patsy Cline in “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline,” directed by Tommy Iafrate, returning for his third summer at Infinity Theatre.
Laura Stracko as Patsy Cline in “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline,” directed by Tommy Iafrate, returning for his third summer at Infinity Theatre. (Nathan Hawkins)

Infinity Theatre in Annapolis is opening its season with an engaging musical tribute in Dean Regan's "A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline."

It was two seasons ago that Infinity presented, with great success, "Always … Patsy Cline," in which a fan tells Patsy's story.

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"Closer Walk" is more concert than musical play, with Cline's life depicted almost entirely through songs delivered by Laura Stracko in the lead role, backed by a terrific four-piece band.

The setting is a broadcast tribute on Cline's Winchester, Va., hometown station, where emcee disc jockey and comedian Little Big Man — played by Andy Baldwin — tells audiences about Cline's life with a dose of country humor.

The legacy of Patsy Cline is one of an ambitious woman who not only succeeds in the man's world of the 1950s, but who makes country music respectable to pop fans through her unique talent and versatility. Her landmark hit, "Crazy," helped her become the first true crossover artist inhabiting both country and pop domains.

Director Tommy Iafrate, who also serves as music director, returns for his third summer at Infinity, where he co-directed last season's Helen Hayes Award-nominated "Million Dollar Quartet."

He may earn similar accolades for this production. Iafrate's elegant simplicity in direction is paired perfectly with scene designer Quinn Stone's authentic 1963-era set, with its raised bandstand and Patsy's performance space.

Similarly, the radio station studio and its DJ announcer's booth create a nostalgic space for airing Ajax and Mr. Clean commercials along with Little Big Man's jokes.

Cline's career is also documented in the attractive 1950s and early 1960s costumes created by Kristina Martin — from a cowgirl outfit for Patsy's early honkytonk days to a demure party dress for the Grand Ole Opry and an elegant black sequin gown upon her attaining Las Vegas star status. An equally elegant, more subdued dress is offered for Cline's Carnegie Hall debut.

A production such as "Closer Walk" requires a star-caliber vocalist, and Infinity delivers with Stracko, whose impressive resume includes "Damn Yankees," "Les Miserables," "Rent" and "Hairspray" in national tours and off Broadway.

Stracko evokes Cline in styling and sincerity, fully projecting every emotion of the lyrics. Her channeling of the late star is most pronounced in "I Fall To Pieces," "She's Got You" and, of course, "Crazy."

It's fascinating to follow Patsy's rise from talented young songstress in modest Virginia-area clubs to a woman whose career suddenly comes into its own with the torchy "There He Goes." This song is powered by emotion seemingly bursting from Cline's — and Stracko's — soul.

Not only does Stracko invest every lyric with emotion and rhythm, she looks fabulous while delivering Cline classics. An especially touching segment arrives with Irving Berlin's love song "Always" near the end of Act 1.

Act 2 brings a devout "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," in which Stracko's voice takes on mezzo coloring that adds profundity to her prayer, immediately followed by a stunning musical memory in "She's Got You."

Describing the tragic events of March 5, 1963, in Camden, Tenn., emcee Little Big Man recounts in news broadcast fashion the plane crash that claims the lives of Cline and other musicians.

The audience knows what's coming, of course, but Cline's fate is nevertheless a dramatic moment capping Baldwin's fine performance. Earlier, he enlivens the show and invites audience participation in joke repartee and in singing "Jimmy Crack Corn," revealing sharp comedic flair in his masterful joke telling.

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The contribution of the live band — JP Coletta conducting and on keyboard, Jay McCarthy on guitar and fiddle, Bob Abbott on bass and Mark Lucas on percussion — is substantial in terms of the music and infinite energy. All are heard in "Orange Blossom Special" that opens Act 2, and McCarthy adds nifty dancing to his fiddling. The program also notes offstage vocalists Dakarai Brown and Marc Pavan.

"A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline" continues through Aug. 6 at Infinity Theatre at CTA Theatre Complex, 1661 Bay Head Road, Annapolis. For tickets call the box office at 877-501-8499 or to go infinitytheatre.com.

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