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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | THEATER

Bringing a Legend to Life Isn't Easy

The actors behind the stage versions of Patsy Cline and other famous figures don't like to shatter the illusion--but they're not who they say they are.

December 05, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't call them impersonators.

They're actors, thank you. They just happen to be acting out someone else's life.

An increasingly popular form--at least at local theaters--is plays that explore the lives of celebrities. Famous figures--from Patsy Cline to Mark Twain--make for great characters and interesting stories, say the actors who play them. But, they also warn, it's not always easy being someone else.

Alice Spencer is new to the title role in "Always . . . Patsy Cline," which arrives for a single performance tonight at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. After working to establish her own sound as a rock singer, she now has to mimic someone else's voice. "But it's turned out to be, for me, almost like taking voice lessons from Patsy Cline," Spencer said.

Her transformation was eased somewhat by period-authentic undergarments: a crinoline, girdle and "a bra that makes your chest look like two missiles," Spencer said. Add the wig and makeup, she said, and she doesn't look like herself anymore. "I'm not me anymore singing Pasty Cline," she said. "I could take that leap of faith and be Patsy Cline."

The illusion worked well at a recent show in Lafayette, La., where a star-struck 12-year-old insisted on meeting her after the show. He insisted that Spencer sign his Cline CD and kept telling her, "Your music is just so wonderful."

"And I kept having to say, 'My name is Alice. Patsy Cline is dead.' "

Without his makeup, Ed Metzger bears little resemblance to Albert Einstein. But the West Hills resident was recognized in a Los Angeles bookstore about five years ago as the star of "Einstein: The Practical Bohemian." The proprietor began to argue that Einstein was a horrible womanizer--and when Metzger defended the famous scientist, she threw him out of the store.

"When you do a famous person, people look at you not as that person, but as a representative of what the person stood for. And that's why I'm glad I'm doing Einstein," said Metzger, who has been doing his show around the country for 18 years.

*

Like most of the others, Metzger was inspired by the astounding success Hal Holbrook has enjoyed with his show, "Mark Twain Tonight." Holbrook has been doing the show for almost 43 years.

Holbrook's success, in part, inspired Charles GaVoian to write his one-man play about the great tenor Mario Lanza, which he recently performed at CSUN Performing Arts Center in Northridge. But he also felt a personal connection to Lanza: They were both operatic singers who grew up in blue-collar families in Philadelphia. GaVoian also has Italian features and a build similar to Lanza's.

"It lent itself to me. It just felt right," GaVoian said. "Everything worked. It was my character. It was me. It was something I could play."

What makes the role tough though, GaVoian said, is that the audience inevitably compared his voice to Lanza's. Still he tries not to "impersonate" Lanza's voice--or anything else. "I come out there and do my thing and make them believe that I am Mario Lanza," he said.

Lanza and Cline fit a mold that Americans seem obsessed with: celebrities who die prematurely and/or tragically. James Dean. Marilyn Monroe. Elvis Presley. Judy Garland. How else to explain the enormous success of "Legends in Concert," the celebrity tribute show that has been running for 13 years in Las Vegas?

Ilana Bar-Din had a chance to observe the phenomenon up close. She worked for three years on "Legends," a documentary about the Vegas show.

"The reason that I made the film is that it struck me as so strange," said Bar-Din. "Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe and James Dean are still in the tabloids and they've been dead for decades. There is something that we hold onto about these dead icons that is really weird."

It's not so odd, said "Legends in Concert" creator John Stuart.

"Mentally, in our hearts and our minds, these people are still here, because the music that they left behind is still here," he said. "They're ageless, they're timeless, and they're beautiful and energetic."

*

Even in their prime, none of the real celebrities could have kept up with Stuart's schedule, though. There are two 90-minute shows a night, six days a week. And he has shows--which he calls re-creations, not impersonations--running in eight cities, including Las Vegas. He says there are people who have seen "Legends in Concert" 2,500 times.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Always . . . Patsy Cline."

* WHERE: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Auditorium.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight.

* HOW MUCH: $17.50 and $27.50.

* CALL: (805) 449-ARTS or Ticketmaster, (805) 583-8700

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