Hank Williams, or Kurt Cobain? Nobody held guns to their heads and forced them to overdose on booze or drugs. But we still wax mournful over their untimely deaths. Car and airplane crashes, jealous fans, drugs, booze, depression, suicide. Americans find the often sordid, sad lives, and deaths, of celebrity idols ideal subject material for elaborate biopic-style stage musicals. These “entertainments” generally wrap the celebrity in a rose-colored cocoon of worshipful nostalgia, glossing over their problem behaviors while celebrating their achievements, small to great, ad nauseam. Theatre companies produce these shows as guaranteed cash cows. Everybody wants to hear a Patsy Cline clone in period costume warble “I Fall to Pieces” again, right? Forgive a theatre critic for sounding jaded, but it’s hard to not wince when taking a seat to view yet another “tribute” show with superficial characterization, scant plot and heaps of contrived romanticism, designed to manipulate audience emotions and empty pockets.
That’s what makes viewing WaterTower Theatre’s current biopic musical “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” such a surprise and delight. It’s dynamite, entertaining theatre, never mind the faintest hint of plotline. Amazing what can happen when a superior director mounts a tight production with a strong cast and excellent musicianship. “Lost Highway” should be a surefire sell-out, because it’s darn good theatre. It runs through November 3. I hear tickets are flying out the door.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Stage director Michael Serrecchia could take a big musical like “The King and I” and produce it in a closet with a full cast and make it shine. In this case he takes what could have been a very sad, shallow affair and focuses on the soul of the fine musical artist Hank Williams — his uniqueness, his inspiration, his clear arc of development and disintegration. This show features twenty-seven musical numbers, twenty-four songs; Hank’s embodiment sings solo or lead on all but three. Instead of inserting the songs along the skimpy plot pathway as a counterbalance of “nostalgic relief”, Serrecchia directs his Hank to reveal the inner workings of the man and artist through the music. Hank’s vitality, virtuosity and increasing alienation and loneliness seethe at a Stanley Kowalski white heat burn with Joey Folsom in the role. Probably Hank gets most often played by a decent singer with a good ear for mimicry and close enough resemblance to pass, but most likely not someone all that strong as an actor.
Serrecchia upped the show’s game by casting tall, angular, sad-eyed Folsom in the lead, a charismatic regional professional with multi-dimensional chops. Who knew he could sing twenty-three songs with ease, channeling Hank Williams’ sound with remarkable accuracy as he acts his way through the musical numbers like a seasoned Metropolitan Opera star? Folsom never disappoints and often astonishes on stage. He’s unforgettable in the shiny blue-black polyester Western cut suit he dons in Act Two, a slick, stark angel of death. It’s his best yet in a string of noteworthy performances. Top that, laddie.
Another inspired casting by director Serrecchia, gamine, spunky Mikaela Krantz plays Hank’s incorrigible, spoiled, domineering wife Audrey to the unabashed hilt. Audrey wants to join Hank’s band, but there’s a problem. She’s tone deaf but unwilling to let a tiny detail like that get in the way of her oversized ego. I’ve never heard someone sing off key so well, nor enjoyed it so much, before. Krantz holds her own, paired with the dynamic Folsom and breathes real fire into Audrey, written in this script as little more than comic relief.
Framing the essence of the tale, Major Attaway as Hank’s mentor Tee-tot reveals the icon’s genesis of inspiration in the blues with ghostly robustness and magnificent singing voice. Sonny Franks plays longtime Williams band member Jimmy and works as the production’s musical director. He guides his fellow cast-mate/ band members into a concert-worthy, balanced, up-tempo performance that could stand alone without the story line (Dave Rankin, Joseph Holt, Dennis Bailey). Yet, they flesh out the tight acting ensemble as well. Statuesque regional newcomer Christia Mantzke, playing a good-hearted diner waitress and avid Williams fan, adds audience-pleasing commentary, providing a needed element of genuine comic relief (along the lines of a young Carol Burnett). She makes much of her smallish part, promising fine work to come in future roles. Rounding out the solid cast, Pam Dougherty as Hank’s mother and Stan Graner as his producer/agent, create a book-ended, gruff reality for the production and sing on company numbers. To reiterate, a strong, talented ensemble, directed handily by a top-flight director with impeccable instincts: what results? A truly enjoyable evening of live theatre. Period costumes are designed and executed with excruciating accuracy by Michael Robinson. Clare Floyd DeVries’ multi-level, whimsical set suggests the Grand Ole Opry and adds charm and interesting visual variety with quilts draped about the set walls. Scott Guenther’s sound and Leann Burns’ lighting design work smoothly to evoke the 50’s old-time ambience without sacrificing modern production values. “Lost Highway” may be this show’s name, but you won’t go far astray by seeing it. Let Hank Williams’ lonesome heart guide your way.
“Hank Williams: Lost Highway” runs Wednesday through Sunday through November 3, 2013 at WaterTower Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, TX 75001.
Tickets: 972.450.6232 firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Karen Almond
A version of this review appears on TheaterJones.com