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Hank Williams: Lost Highway
By Elyse Sommer
What's cookin' on the stage of the Metropolitan Playhouse on Mercer Street is an endearing, hand-clapping retrospective of country western legend Hank Williams' brief life and extensive song legacy. You don't have to be a country western fan to enjoy yourself and go out humming "Hey, Good Lookin'" -- and still hum it in the shower the next morning.
Though Williams has been dead for half a century -- this production is a celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death at twenty-nine -- his music and numerous books about him have nurtured his legend. As with Love Janis, about Janis Joplin, another fabled singer who died prematurely, Randal Myler has created a show that's essentially a biographical concert with just enough background to frame song after bouncy song.
The book, co-written by Myler and Mark Harelik (who also performed the lead in other incarnations of this show), doesn't ignore Williams' alcoholism (he started drinking at age ten). Don't, however, expect a dark folk opera or a fact perfect, fully detailed biography or, for that matter, any insights into the songwriting process. The program compensates for this with lots of interesting facts and quotes as well as a time line. The emphasis of the show is on the joy of the music and giving audiences, most of whom will be too young to ever have seen Williams and his Drifting Cowboy band perform live, a flavor that's as close to the real thing as possible.
Jason Petty, who first stepped into Williams' boots in 1996 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, though a better singer than actor, does inhabit the singer-songwriter's persona and voice. He's immensely likeable, and puts his heart and soul into the music.
Petty gets terrific backup from the members of the band, several of whom get some deserved star turns -- notably "Way Downtown" in which Jimmy (Myk Watford) and Hoss (Stephen G. Anthony) combine music with vaudevillian comedy, regularly interrupted by Leon (Drew Perkins) on a variety of instruments. Margaret Bowman is very fine as Hank's bible-thumping Mama Lily whose resemblance to Marjorie Main, physically and in manner, will be apparent anyone who has ever caught that crustiest of crusty old timers on reruns of the Ma and Pa Kettle flicks.
Young as he was, Williams was married twice. The storminess of his first marriage with the pert but untalented Miss Audrey (Tertia Lynch). Her determination to be part of the show is here played mostly for comic relief. Instead of the second Mrs. Williams, there's an omnipresent waitress and sometime narrator (Juliet Smith)) representing all the people who listened to Hank over the radio. Her one time fling with Williams when he wanders into her diner seems superfluous and out of character with the show. More satisfying is the character known as Tee-Tot (well played by the strong of voice Michael W. Howell) a black blues singer from whom Williams learned to find his own musical voice (a mix of hillbilly, boogie, blues, yodeling and gospel).
Beowolf Boritt's set includes Grand Ole Opry posters all along the wall of the theater's single aisle and divides the stage into a main playing area for the performances, with a smaller area at each side for Tee-Tot and the waitress. Colorful backdrops rise and fall as needed. Robert Blackman's costumes have the ring of authenticity and the scene where everyone is dressed in white or black -- Hank and the band's suits patterned to resemble sheets of music -- is a bit like a Country Western version of the race track scene in My Fair Lady. Perhaps if audiences continue to respond as enthusiastically as they did last Monday evening, the show can eventually move into the space that Love, Janis will soon vacate after its successful two-year run.
The Immigrant Written by Harelik and directed by Myler
It Ain't Nothin' But the Bluesco-conceived and directed by Myler
Love, Janis directed by Myler
Theater Books Make Great Gifts
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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