It’s Audrey (played by the willowy Cora Vander Broek), Hank Williams’ put-upon first wife, who best sums up her husband’s fatal contradictions: “You wear a $500 custom suit—and I bet you haven’t changed your underwear in a week.”
American Blues Theater’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is a warts-and-all musical portrait of the man who in the late 1940s essentially invented modern country and western, serving as the genre’s first superstar, legend and martyr. Directed by Damon Kiely, the play has the very American ambivalence of all such stories, simultaneously celebrating the art while lamenting the self-destructiveness of the artist, and underscoring the vital link between the two.
Hank Williams shot out of rural southern Alabama like a comet, inspired in part by the Baptist church of his youth, in part by the blues he heard on the other side of town (embodied here by Tee-Tot, a black street musician played winningly by Byron Glenn Willis). He learned to tap into his own deeper, darker places to create his trademark countrified blues, until the darkness finally engulfed him at age twenty-nine. He died in the backseat of his baby-blue Cadillac convertible while en route to yet another one-night stand.
As with Elvis and so many others, booze and pills were the bullets, but it was celebrity itself that was the gun. Williams’ fame brought with it the embroidered suits, custom Caddies and other trappings of wealth he never really wanted, while making it impossible to hold onto anything that did matter, like his own dignity. Ensnared in a life he had come to hate, pursuing a success that seemed ever more empty, seeking to communicate with fans who saw him not as a person but a Star to project their fantasies and resentments upon, Hank Williams simply ran out of gas on New Year’s Day 1953, sucked dry by the coldness and loneliness at the top.
It’s anything but a feel-good story. However, Randal Myler’s and Mark Harelik’s script is overly anxious to make us like (or at least not hate) the drunken, touchy and childish Williams. The play fuzzes its focus and never gets inside this bedeviled genius/pain, who, according to Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, had “a million-dollar talent … but a ten-cent brain.” (It’s a line that should be in the play, but is not.)
A series of narrators—Williams’ mother, the fiercely devoted, iron-willed, bible-thumping Mama Lillie (Suzanne Petri, who disappears in the second half, perhaps translated to heaven), his manager Fred Rose (played by ABT cofounder James Leaming), and a diner waitress and quintessential fan (Dana Black)—comment on the action, but the insights are mostly superficial and no coherent perspective emerges. The play has little sense of either time or place, mirroring the hero’s own bubble-wrapped self-absorption, and Jackie and Rick Penrod’s set is bland enough to serve as everything from church to café to honky-tonk to concert stage.
The saving grace of “Lost Highway” is the music, which as guided by Malcolm Ruhl, is as strong as the storytelling is weak. Matthew Brumlow, who lacks Williams’ potent combination of vulnerability and charisma, does have seriously good pipes, and strums, croons and yodels his way to glory in such classic numbers as “Lovesick Blues,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Jambalaya” and “Move It on Over.” Brumlow is accompanied by the real stars of the show, his terrific Drifting Cowboys backup band, consisting of guitarist Jimmy (Michael Mahler), bassist Hoss (Austin Cook), fiddler Leon (Greg Hirte) and steel guitar player Shag (John Foley), whose twangy Hawaiian sound was a real innovation at the time. The play is its most enjoyable when the group is improvising and composing together, showing the playfulness and joy at the heart of creativity, before everything gets processed, packaged and plugged by the middlemen and moneymen.
With the soul of a revue but the structure of a musical, “Lost Highway” flags whenever talking replaces the heart- and body-stirring singing. The real Hank Williams as depicted here remains a cipher, the inconvenient doppelganger of the other Hank Williams, the Grand Ole Opry megastar. He brought trouble upon himself by taking a hard look at the showbiz world he was a part of, seeing it not as a gold-paved street but a lost highway. And in the end, the vision he expressed in his sorrow-tinged songs remains deeper and more compelling than anything anyone else can say about him. (Hugh Iglarsh)
American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln, (773)404-7336. americanbluestheater.com. $29-$49. Through
August 31. September 28.