“ Eric Stahlhammer creates a crisp and warm sound for both the music and the sound effects in this play.”
Voted Best Professional Theater Production by the Orange County Register
‘Hank Williams: Lost Highway,’ Laguna Playhouse
The singer always gets the headlines, and it was Van Zeiler’s commanding turn as Hank Williams Sr. that drew the rave notices in this show. Great work, no doubt, but ringers in the lead role aren’t uncommon in musicals. However, though full or partial versions of more than 20 Williams songs were included, this Randal Myler-and-Mark Harelik piece (Myler also directed) was much more than a musical revue or nostalgic stroll down the hillbilly highway. The duo did a fine job of not only tracing the trajectory of Williams’ rise to fame and harrowing fall, but also capturing his aching humanity and singular genius. Anyone who walked out of the performance not realizing that Williams was every bit an American original as Louis Armstrong or Levi’s wasn’t paying attention.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway,
November 13th through December 16th at the Laguna Playhouse
For tickets and information, call 949-497-2787 or log on to lagunaplayhouse.org
Well I left my home down on the rural route
I told my Pa I’m goin steppin out
Well I stopped into every place in town
This city life is really got me down
I got the Honky Tonk Blues
Yeah the Honky Tonk Blues
Well, Lord, I got em,
I got the Honky Tonk Blues
-Hank Williams, Sr.-
For the last 30 years or so, author Randal Myler & arranger/conductor Dan Wheetman have made a comfortable, most likely lucrative living constructing bio-musicals out of the lives and tunes of some of America’s most extraordinary musicians. One of the first and most successful of these musicals was Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Hank Williams: Lost Highway was co-written by Mr. Myler & actor Mark Harelik. In its current incarnation, it was first produced at the Arizona Theatre Company in 2005: Mr. Myler directed it and Mr. Wheetman supervised the music. I recall an earlier rendition, however, at PCPA Theatrefest in Santa Maria/Solvang in the early 1980s. It was called Hank Williams: King of Country Music then, and it starred co-author Mark Harelik who, by all accounts, was a sensation. Since then, Mark Harelik has gone on to a celebrated Broadway career, and both Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, whether working together or with other collaborators, have developed a catalogue of plays and bio-musicals that have been honored with an Ovation award in Los Angeles, Joseph Jefferson award nominations in Chicago and a Tony nomination in New York.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway is an original. Before Hank Williams, musical theatre writers rarely wrote biographies for the stage, and if they did, they didn’t use established bodies of music to do it with. In Hank Williams: Lost Highway, Mr. Myler and Mr. Harelik use Hank William’s own music to tell his story. This show unreels like a superb film biography, coursing smoothly from scene to scene with the speed and grace of fine cinema. And Hank Williams, by the way, is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of American Music.
Mr. Myler and Mr. Wheetman have brought this theatre original to the Laguna Playhouse. After spending nearly twenty five years with this piece, Mr. Myler has worked it into an elegant piece of theatre. The “action” takes place center stage, which is, more or less, a simple platform that, with a change of a backdrop or with a different set of microphone covers, can be turned into any place the drama needs it to be; from the bandstand of some backwoods Honky Tonk to the main stage at the Grand Ole Opry. Flanking the main stage is an old filling station and the interior of a 1950s truck stop. The filling station is the home of blues man Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, the man who history says taught Hank Williams the blues. There’s a waitress in the truck stop; a waitress who met Hank Williams one night while she was working. Tee-Tot and the Waitress comment on the action as it progresses; Tee-Tot uses his wonderful delta blues to speak his mind and the Waitress simply compares what she sees from center stage to that night.
Photo by Ed Krieger
Mr. Myler has put together a superb cast for this production. Van Zeiler plays Hank Williams. Mr. Zeiler has the charisma of a “regular” guy, and as Hank, he demands the audience’ complete attention and never relinquishes it, even in the midst of Hank’s tougher moments. Myk Watford plays Hank’s lead guitarist, Burrhead, a country smart ass who always has sumpin to say. Mr. Watford is hysterical, especially during the “clown” scene at the Opry. Yet Mr. Watford makes Burrhead’s observations cogent even they aren’t funny. Mississippi Charles Bevel plays Tee-Tot. His delta blues is the genuine article; a rare treat in a bumptious world overrun by electronica. Margaret Bowman plays Mama Lilly, Hank’s tough love of a mother. Ms. Bowman’s performance is so simple and so honest that she doesn’t seem to be acting. As a matter of fact, I have aunts like her. Regan Southard plays Miss Audrey, Hank’s first female love. Unfortunately, Miss Audrey couldn’t sing. Ms. Southard does a superb job of mimicking a woman who can’t harmonize; by the plays end, she has the chance to prove that it’s just acting. Ms. Southard turns Miss Audrey into a palpable force in the play. Stephanie Cozart plays the Waitress. Ms. Cozart is sexy and funny, and her Waitress is a simple woman who’s going to survive no matter what happens at center stage.
The band for this play is Hank Williams’ band: Mr. Zeiler plays rhythm guitar, Mr. Watford plays lead guitar, Stephen G. Anthony as Hoss plays upright bass, Mark Baczynski as Loudmouth plays fiddle & mandolin, and Russ Weaver as Shag plays that slide peddle guitar that gives Country music its twang. The music, of course, is supervised by Dan Wheetman; Mr. Wheetman and his actor/musicians put together a clean country sound. Vicki M. Smith’s set and T. Greg Squires’ lights are both practical and beautiful. Eric Stahlhammer creates a crisp and warm sound for both the music and the sound effects in this play. Wally Ziegler’s costumes are an exquisite blend of country chic and American cultural history.
Even for a city boy like me, Hank Williams has long been a fascinating character. At its inception, Hank Williams: Lost Highway was unique among musicals; it used Hank William’s own music to tell Hank William’s story. Of course, there have been several musicals since then that have done the same thing, but this is the original. And this production serves it up as well done as you’ll find it.