The “musical drama” of Hank Williams: Lost Highway takes its cues from other great bio-dramas that have gone before, and what it lacks in storytelling it makes up with sheer talent.
The songs will sound familiar to the middle-age crowd, and serve as a solid introduction to honky-tonk for everyone else. The unique feature for this show is the incorporation of a southern blues sound in the form of legendary Mississippi Charles Bevel who remains on stage the entire time, serving as a soulful reminder of what gave Hank’s plaintiff vocals such ommphf.
The storyline is rather perfunctory with little if any in-depth exploration into character and the events unfold in a linear way. The power of the show comes from the stellar performances of all the characters, and I mean beacon-bright get yo’ ticket now star power.
Jason Petty in a Stetson hat and cowboy boots lives, breathes, and channels the role of Hank Williams having portrayed him throughout the country for nearly a decade, and refers to him as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare.” He’s a force and talent that’s not to be missed.
When he pairs up with Mississippi Charles Bevel as Tee-Tot, their voices cradle each other with ferocious energy. Tee-Tot’s vocals go from a blues holler to gospel wail and everything in-between. That he both opens and closes the show reflects the writers’ nod to the southern African American roots in shaping the sound of rural early country-western music. As such, the writers acknowledge the slavery-tinged roots of sharecroppers barely freed from bondage, with the wail of hardship and misery in the early “race songs” that became the blues. In one touching early scene, a young teen Hank approaches Tee-Tot who helps shape his plaintiff sound by nudging him to dig deep into his soul to bring out his music. With Tee-Tot’s guidance, Williams’ lyrics plumb the depth of his emotions and feelings resulting in a sound that continues to influence generations with legendary and timeless appeal.
Becky Barta as Mama is a force to be reckoned with, trying to keep her extremely talented though near wayward son on task. In portraying the character, Barta works with what she’s got, which isn’t a lot, scowling, fussing, taking the reigns as manager in chief in the early tour days. Rachel Womkble has a little more to work with as Williams’ early love interest and later formidable wife who wrestles with Mama for his attention, at one point, literally, while forcibly trying to assert her own songs in the mix. The script and direction provide humorous glimmers of Williams’ conflicted allegiance to the band and artistic integrity while trying to accommodate a tenacious and perky though tone-deaf wife.
Michael R. Douglass shines as the band manager Pap making the tough decisions that nudge the band into the stardom. The rest of the ensemble, expertly guided by amazing upright bass player and music director Stephen G. Anthony, consists of some of the best country western musicians this side of Nashville. Russ Wever on the slide steel guitar brings the distinctive country sound to the group, joined by H. Drew Perkins violinist, fiddler extraordinaire, and young up and coming Zack Steele.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway
Closes June 29, 2014
CTA Theatre Complex
1661 Bay Head Road
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $40
Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays
The linear plotlines depict Hank’s descent and ultimate self-destruct tendencies that cast him as a hard-drinking rabble rouser, as undependable as he was unfaithful with limited self respect and even less self-control. The script doesn’t provide any clue about where his bottomless pit of angst and despair came from, just that he was constantly mired in the muck of it. Tee-Tot joins him in a soulful rendition of the “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” and listened intently to the beginning scribbles of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which ultimately became another chart-topper. Petty and the band do justice to Hank’s other classics, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”, “Hey Good Lookin’”, and the famous, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. Somehow, those numbers penetrated my own jazz- filled household on Chicago’s Southside in the 1950’s, so Hank Williams had quite a reach. His accomplishments were even more remarkable considering that his heavy drinking, drugging, and risky living wiped him out before he reached 30.
It wouldn’t be a musical theater summer without some NY-style sizzle from Infinity, and once again they deliver while celebrating their fifth year. That kind of gumption, perseverance, and Broadway producing acumen deserves attention– their latest offering is definitely worth the trip to catch Hank Williams playing up the highway.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway . book by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik . Music by Hank Williams . Directed by Randal Myler .
Produced by Infinity Theatre Company . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.