A moving, joyful tribute to Hank Williams and his music
|American Blues Theater presents|
|Hank Williams: Lost Highway|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Midway through the first act in American Blues Theater‘s staging of Hank Williams: Lost Highway, Matthew Brumlow quietly breaks into the aching ballad "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry." The lyrics are sorrow-steeped with beauty, the tone one of irretrievable, soul-deep loss. The moment is pure magic, a portrait of the artist as a troubadour of beautiful sadness. While Lost Highway is lively with humor and packed with toe-tapping, utterly joyful renditions of the "hillbilly" poet’s music, it’s that bone-deep melancholy that defines the piece.
Directed by Damon Kiely, with musical direction by Malcolm Ruhl, Lost Highway is a glorious contradiction: A musical bio that’s bursting at the seams with rambunctious playfulness and color down to the core in Williams life-long, fruitless quest for contentment. Williams’ music was "an echo of something that came from so far back in the woods and so deep in the ground you couldn’t put a name to it," notes Williams’ manager Fred Rose (James Leaming) in a near-perfect summation of the distinctive sound. That sound, as well as the essence of the singer’s troubled, short life, provide the heartbeat fueling Lost Highway. It’s a rhythm that’s is impossible to resist.
As musical bios go, Lost Highway – penned by Mark Harelik and Randal Myler – is one of the best, merging a compelling story with close to two dozen old school country tunes. It starts not with Williams but with his musical mentor, a Black blues singer named Tee-Tot (John Crowley, whose vocals are indelibly haunting). Tee-Tot is underwritten – he’s a prime example of what Spike Lee so accurately labeled "the Magical Negro Trope" – but Crowley makes up for the script’s shortcomings with pure, sonic gorgeousness .
The sound of the ensemble gathered to perform as Hank’s band, the Drifting Cowboys, is just as rich. Greg Hirte‘s violin all but smokes as he fiddles through the score’s impossibly rapid cascades of melody and harmony; Michael Mahler‘s lead guitar ripples through elaborate passages with hootenanny exuberance. John Foley‘s console steel wails with emotion and Austin Cook‘s thumping, upright bass provides a driving foundation for the Cowboys’ sound.
The epicenter of the piece is, of course, Brumlow’s embodiment as the gifted, tormented Williams. Brumlow has lost an alarming amount of weight in order to slip into the skin of the notoriously bean-pole thin singer, who was so skinny as a boy his mother claimed he could "change clothes in the barrel of a shotgun." The actor’s remarkable physical transformation is matched by his vocal channeling of Williams high, lonesome twang and yodel-like arias. It’s a demanding, bravura performance and Brumlow nails it from lights up to curtain call.
There’s also excellent supporting work from Suzanne Petri as Williams’ mother, a powerhouse whose early influence helped light a fire to her son’s ambitions. As Williams’ tone-deaf wife Audrey, Laura Coover is an ingenue to be reckoned with.
Lost Highway plays out against Jackie and Rick Penrod‘s hardscrabble set, an environment that evokes both backwoods juke joints and the dazzle of the Grand Ole Opry.
In all, Williams’ story is a sadly familiar one: A gifted artist burns bright and fast, only to die young. But American Blues’ production elevates the cliche to a richly realized, wildly entertaining piece of storytelling infused with all-encompassing musical poetry.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway continues through October 6th at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2:30pm. Tickets are $29-$39, and are available by phone (773-404-7336) or online through Tix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at AmericanBluesTheater.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Johnny Knight
Dana Black (Waitress), Matthew Brumlow* (Hank Williams), Austin Cook* (Hoss), Laura Coover* (Audrey), John Crowley (Tee-Tot), John Foley (Shag), Greg Hirte (Leon), James Leaming (Pap), Michael Mahler* (Jimmy), Suzanne Petri* (Mama)
behind the scenes
Damon Kiely (director), Malcolm Ruhl (music director), Sarah E. Ross* (costumes), Christopher Neville (asst. costumes), Nick Belley (lighting design), Jackie Penrod, Rick Penrod (co-scenic design), Rick Sims (sound design), Grant Sabin, Arianna Soloway* (co-properties design), Kevin Kinsington (asst. director), Ellen Willett (production manager), Dana M. Nestrick (stage manager), Kathryn Lochert (asst. stage manager), Kelli Marino* (dramaturg), Lauri Dahl* (associate dramaturg), Claudia Anderson (dialect coach), Justin Snyder (tech director), Eric Backus (sound engineer), Gwendolyn Whiteside (producing artistic director), Jaclyn Holsey (general manager), Johnny Knight (photos)
* denotes American Blues Theater Ensemble and Artistic Affiliates