It’s a Little Like the Blues
Regional theatre companies such as Arizona Theatre Company have become adept at disguising their musical revues. Hank Williams: Lost Highway is another greatest hits album, but by telling an artist’s tragic story through their own words and music, it achieves the type of gravitas that other revues like Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm could not. When observing the painfully short life of Williams, the 1940s Hillbilly singer and one of the superstar forefathers of Country Western music, it’s impossible not to intertwine it with his lovely music and lonely, haunted lyrics; this is an artist who crafted a public soundtrack to his meteoric life. Writers Randal Myler and Mark Harelik (author of ATC’s chamber musical of last season, The Immigrant) use ten actors to portray the singer and all of the important people in his life, allowing them to narrate Williams’ (Van Zeiler) ascent and collapse. As ATC did prior when they mounted It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, this production is basically a remounting of the 2003 New York production, utilizing the same director (Myler) and most of the original cast.
The show is structured as you’d expect a country ballad to be: it starts with his impertinent youth under the tutelage of African American blues singer Tee-Tot (Mississippi Charles Bevel) and the thumb of his strict Mama Lilly (Margaret Bowman); we follow his life on the road prior to stardom with his band, the Drifting Cowboys Hoss (Stephen G. Anthony), Jimmy (Myk Watford), Leon (H. Drew Perkins), and quiet Shag (Russ Wever); we’re there when he falls hard for the strong-willed Audrey (Regan Southard) and quickly marries her; we witness as he’s contracted by Fred “Pap” Rose (Mike Regan), shoots to stardom on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and then falls into alcoholism, drug addiction, and paranoia until he spends the night with a waitress (Patricia Dalen) before he dies with a whimper, not a bang. Each of the events is underscored by a medley of Williams’ hits, such as “Move It On Over,” “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Die,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Myler and Harelik ensure that each song nicely comments on the point in William’s life in which it’s placed.
Myler keeps the show moving steadily from moment to moment in Williams’ life. He sometimes creates interesting visual images through actor placement and the effective unit set designed by Vicki Smith flanked by Williams’ childhood town gas station on the left where Tee-Tot sits observing and the fateful diner manned by the waitress listening to his career on the radio, awaiting his arrival.
Zeiler is a handsome and talented musician. His voice is strong and he plays the guitar very well. However, his performance is prone to obvious choices, such as the perkiness of his youthful Hank and the ominous glares as he slowly disintegrates. Bevel is back after his spectacular performance in It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, and he’s still a strong, welcome presence and an amazing singer. Bowman is quite funny as his strict mom, and the band members are equally talented in musical and acting abilities. Southard does an excellent job of acting the steely southern belle and singing badly (as her character requires), which is not as easy as it sounds. Regan plays the step-patriarch believably, and Dalen has the unenviable task of spending most of the play cleaning the counter, sweeping, and making the occasional comment until her big moment at the end of the second act, which she performs in a heartbreaking way.
Don Darnutzer dramatically lights Smith’s versatile set, while Rober Blackman’s costumes are perfectly in character and period in every instance. Eric Stahlhammer’s sound design is balanced and never overwhelming.
Even someone as unversed in country western music as I appreciated the song list and the careful way the authors have woven the story and music together. There is a false ending to the piece, a manufactured one that reshapes the drama of Williams’ death back into an oddly happier ending, because of course one never ends a musical revue on a down note, but even with this bit of revision, the musical proves to be a strong hybrid.
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