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Theater Wed Sep 11 2013

American Blues Theater Travels Down Hank Williams: Lost Highway

Hank Williams: Lost Highway is a toe-tapping musical biography about the country blues singer-songwriter who performed in the 1940s and early 1950s, an important time in American musical history. In a way, it's a jukebox musical, with 28 Hank Williams songs played during the two-plus-hour, two-act play. But it has a strong underlying story, a tragic one about a boy growing up in a poor family in Alabama and learning to sing in church, as so many blues musicians did. Williams (Mathew Brumlow) learned to sing and play guitar as a teenager, which is also when he learned to love alcohol. The intertwined loves of music and booze are the heart of the Hank Williams story.


Hank and Tee-Tot. Photo by Johnny Knight.

Presented by American Blues Theater, written by Randall Myler and Mark Harelik and directed by Damon Kiely, Lost Highway is a drama with plenty of superbly played music. Kiely and music director Malcolm Ruhl do a terrific job of showing how Williams' band is built from the core of three teenaged friends to become a successful five-piece show band, the Drifting Cowboys. Williams starts out playing with Jimmy (Michael Mahler) on guitar and vocals and Hoss (Austin Cook) on upright bass and vocals. The band is soon expanded by Leon (Greg Hirte) a talented fiddler. Later John Foley, a veteran Chicago musician, completes the Drifting Cowboys as Shag, on console steel guitar, harmonica and spoons.

Two women play important roles in Williams' life and career. His strong mother, Mama Lilly (Suzanna Petri) starts Hank (born Hiram) off on his singing career in church, buys him his first guitar, and organizes and drives the boys around to their early gigs. Once he begins to star on stages of small clubs, he attracts a female following and falls in love with a pretty blonde fan, Audrey (Laura Coover) and they marry. Audrey, who has musical stardom ambitions, wants to perform with the band. Unfortunately, her voice wanders off-key and off-tune, despite Hank's attempts to teach her to sing.

Fred Rose, known as Pap (James Leaming), is Hank's mentor and sometime manager and provides a narrative voice for the play. Dana Black does a smart little cameo as a diner waitress and Williams fan.

The play opens with Williams' death at age 29 on New Year's Day 1953 in the back seat of his baby blue Cadillac convertible, as he was being driven to concerts in West Virginia and Ohio. His cause of death was officially listed as a heart attack, but it's usually attributed to an excess of alcohol and pills. (Williams suffered from severe back pain all his life and may have had spina bifida.) The play takes us through Williams' early life and career to the height of his stardom, performing at the Grand Ol' Opry. Throughout his career, whether playing in small clubs and roadhouses, on radio programs like Louisiana Hayride, or in large concert venues, Williams is sometimes unable to perform because of his drinking. Since the theater audience has seen the end at the beginning, we know where the trouble will lead.

Brumlow is masterful as Hank and even the singer's most serious fans should be happy with his performance. He has the skinny look and cowboy style of Williams and his voice has the right tone and timber. His renditions of songs like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Honky Tonk Blues," "Lovesick Blues" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" will compare well with songs by the original Hank that you can listen to on YouTube. The theater included a setlist in the press kit and audience members would have appreciated seeing that songlist in the playbill.

Hank Williams is sometimes dismissed as just a country singer, but he was an important link between the "old-timey" music string bands of the South and the African-American Delta and Chicago blues musicians who had immense influence on white rock and roll. This chain of influence is hinted at in the relationship between Hank and a local black blues singer named Tee-Tot (John Crowley). Crowley has a magnificent soulful blues voice and the Williams-Tee-Tot duets are a highlight of the show.

American Blues Theater's production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway, the first play in its Legends and Legacies season, has just been extended until October 12 at the Downstairs Mainstage, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $29-39 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-404-7336.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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