By Barry Reszel
The first-rate country legend musical biography, brought back by the American Blues Theater to Lincoln Park’s Greenhouse Theatre Center following sold-out houses a year ago, walks an incredible, fine line.
This has nothing to do with Johnny Cash.
This one is all about Hank Williams, the groundbreaking, homespun, brilliant country/blues singer-songwriter who drank himself to death at age 29. And what makes Hank Williams: Lost Highway a significant contribution to the musical theatre biopic canon is this piece’s ability to convincingly, simultaneously communicate both genius and tragedy.
There is no good reason this show is not staged alongside Beautiful: the Carole King Musical under America’s brightest theatrical lights; it’s that complete.
Lost Highway is the impeccable combination of down home country charm and dark side education. Perhaps it’s even more pronounced in these days following Robin Williams’ death by suicide, as aficionados of the arts seek to understand.
The story is of Hank Williams’ sadly short musical life. It chronicles his beginnings in Georgiana, Ala., with street blues musician and vocalist Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, impeccably channeled through Byron Glenn Willis, and continues to his triumphs on the Grand Ole Opry and tribulations with alcohol, drugs and relationships. More about Williams’ life may be read here.
More than 20 Williams hits make up the terrific score, including “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Move It on Over,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Jambalaya,” among others.
Director Damon Kiely‘s stellar ensemble tells Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s wonderfully balanced story with humor and despair. This true ensemble piece is led by Matthew Brumlow‘s recreation of Williams, critically acclaimed a year ago and equally deserving such accolades again
Brumlow as the title character is well-supported indeed. It’s entirely possible the Chicago actors and musicians portraying Williams’ Drifting Cowboys are better musicians than their real-life counterparts were. Brilliant Michael Mahler, seemingly equally adept with a guitar, baton or pen in hand, plays guitarist and oft-times narrator Jimmy with an affable, approachable touch. Pianist Austin Cook as Hoss, jaw dropping fiddler Greg Hirte as Leon and multi-instrumentalist John Foley as Shag portray the rest of the band with understated magnificence.
The production also includes terrific performances from feisty Williams mom Suzanne Petri; paternal group manager James Leaming; talent-lacking, singer wanna-be, Williams wife Cora Vander Broek; and waitress/starstruck fan Dana Black.
In fact, it’s Black’s significant performance that leads one observer to believe a reworked version of Lost Highway with her character as narrator from the beginning and throughout, deserves some consideration.
But that’s for other productions of Highways yet to be traveled.
For now, this Lost Highway is cheatin’, lonesome and good lookin’ enough to command sellout performances through September’s final weekend.
American Blues Theater’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” performs through Sept. 28 at the Greenhouse Theater Center’s Downstairs Mainstage Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $29 Wednesdays – Fridays and $39 Saturdays and Sundays. The performance schedule is Wednesday – Saturday at 7:30 pm. and Sunday at 2:30 pm. More information and tickets are available by calling 773-404-7336 or online at www.americanbluestheater.com.