The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Heather Barfield Cole, May 20, 2005, Arts

Hank Williams: Lost Highway

Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through June 19

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

We can't get enough of the legends and icons of the entertainment industry. We come to idolize them through the old movies or records they made, then we play them over and over again, looking for hidden clues that will give us more information about their character or life story through the poetics of picture and song. And when that isn't enough, sometimes we turn to dramas such as this one that give us a star's biography set against the work he created. In Hank Williams: Lost Highway, playwright Randal Myler (Love, Janis; It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues) lays out the story of this pioneering country singer whose emotions and sincerity were written plain and clear on his fancy tailored suits. The sounds of loneliness, pain, and falling in love spin circles in country music, and Hank had a lot to do with establishing that in the budding musical genre.

From his southern Alabama home, Hank practices singing and strumming with Tee-Tot, a street musician who teaches Hank lessons on the blues. In this Zach Scott production, Janis Stinson portrays this musical shadow behind the famous man. Her voice is husky sweet, dripping with soul, especially during the haunting song "The Blood Done Sign My Name." As Hank, Kenneth Brian is adorable, though mostly listless in the first act. He can sing and buckle his knees together while pulling string, but his impersonation does not fill in some of the more intricate qualities of his character. It is not until Williams' darkest hour, near his tumultuous death, the set flooded red with fury, that Brian shows us flashes of despair and self-destruction.

The cast has enough musical energy to propel the audience into clapping participation, sometimes singing along with a kind of sermon praise. Walt Roberts on fiddle makes the horsehair on his bow fly through fast hillbilly riffs. Chris Rhoades on the upright bass and Herb Steiner on the steel guitar display a real professionalism in their tight musical skills that they aren't able to match in their dialogue, and this can be difficult to overlook. Under Dave Steakley's direction, most of the characters are underdeveloped and lack substance, which results in a rather negatively biased perspective on Southern white country roots. Guffaws and exclamations of "Aw, shucks" mask opportunities for depth, making most scenes more clownlike than intended. It's when Rick Perkins – whose club manager clues us in on the story details with narration between scenes – is goofing around as Shag at the Grand Ole Opry that clowning actually fits the mood. Sara Kendrick courageously tackles the role of "Tawdry" Audrey Williams, the wife of Hank. The part stinks of blonde dumbness, but Kendrick manages to squeeze some dynamics into Audrey that make her less of a bimbo and more of a media-hungry singer struggling against her husband's limelight and substance abuse.

All in all, Lost Highway is a good musical for fans of Hank Williams looking for a nostalgic interlude. If praising an icon is the intention, then we see what's expected: a star's childhood influences, his rocketing rise to fame, hard life on the road, pill popping, liquor drinking, and the induced mortality of a single man.

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