Recently, when visiting the home of some very dear Texas friends, the eldest son in the family, a talented young football player on The Woodlands High School team, gave me a gift. It was a CD of classic country songs and contained a number of original Hank Williams favorites. As this youngster first played the CD for me on his “boom box,” his eyes gleamed with joy as he sang along to Williams tunes like “Hey, Good Lookin’.” I remember thinking how remarkable it was that a contemporary 15 year-old could be so totally delighted with the music of a man that died in 1952 at the age of twenty-nine.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, because here I am in New York a month later, and Hank Williams is the Country King of Broadway, even after all these years. Now playing at the intimate, and very comfortable, Little Shubert Theatre, the show in question is “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” Directed by Randal Myler, it features a moving and remarkable performance in the title role by Jason Petty. Co-authored by Myler and Mark Harelik, the show has slickly authentic musical direction from Dan Wheetman. Hank’s band, The Drifting Cowboys, includes the considerable musical talents of, Myk Watford (on guitar) as Jimmy, Drew Perkins (on fiddle & mandolin) as Leon, Russ Wever (on dazzling steel guitar) as Shag, and Steven G. Anthony (on bass) as Hoss. And speaking of bass, don’t miss the rich bass vocals from Michael W. Howell as the wise old black man, Tee-Tot (Hank’s boyhood mentor in learning how to color his music with hard-times southern blues). Tee-Tot’s place in the story is not always clear, but Howell creates a character that is part sage, part Greek chorus, yet always in a deeply resonant voice reminiscent of some rich fog horn penetrating the ocean mist. All the characters move freely about the inclusive one-set scenic design of Beowulf Boritt that brings us living room, gas station, diner, and Grand Ole Opry, in one comprehensive layout on the open stage. Fine lighting from designer, Don Darnutzer, kept everything clearly visible, while the costumes of Robert Blackman added country-style flair.
Rounding out the cast were the robust Michael P. Moran as Hank’s sometimes exasperated manager, “Pap,” Tertia Lynch as Hank’s whiny wife, and would-be co-star, Audrey, and Juliet Smith who was stuck in the singularly uninteresting and unnecessary role of the Waitress. At the performance I attended, understudy, Cynthia Darlow, acquitted herself well as Hank’s doting mother, Mama Lily. With her sassy twang and wisecracks, she frequently reminded me of the lead character in the old T.V. sitcom, “Mama’s Family.”
But clearly, in this well-done production, Mr. Petty’s co-star was the music itself. With wonderful performances by both Petty and the band, consider songs like “Honky Tonk Blues,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Jambalaya,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You),” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and the aforementioned “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Hank’s Grand Ole Opry debut with “Lovesick Blues,” alerts the nation to his unique yodeling style and fluid technique. As Williams grows from boyhood to his all-too-brief manhood, we learn of his distanced father, the religious and gospel influences, his brilliant talent as singer/songwriter, the conflicts with wife and mother, the drinking, drugs and back pain, and then the resulting downward spiral that would bring this short life to its premature conclusion. There is addiction, heartbreak, betrayal, and a stunning performance by Petty in capturing the decline. But his country music legacy triumphs over all, and the theater was full of smiles for a hand-clapping gospel finale of “I Saw The Light,” that had old Hank, if only briefly, resurrected for the fans once more.
Now playing at New York’s Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street, “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” reservations can be made at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.
(The Courier 5.18.03)