A Legend's Life

ATC's Hank Williams homage works better than most jukebox musicals

What's cookin' at Arizona Theatre Company is a good lookin' revue called Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Well designed, acted and sung, the show could be improved by only one thing: jettisoning the first act and rebuilding the play around the second-act crisis, thereby taking time to develop the elements unique to this country singer's story, and using the music to help tell that story rather than merely to punctuate a breathless narration of the man's whole damn life.

Now, Lost Highway starts off in better shape than most of the jukebox musicals that have been spinning around (among them Five Guys Named Moe, Good Vibrations and Mamma Mia!). The usual concept: Buy the rights to an hour of hits by Louis Jordan or Billy Joel or the Beach Boys or, for god's sake, ABBA, and string them together with some flimsy plot that has nothing to do with the song lyrics. Rarely, the songs will bind together a show that's actually about their creator. Lennon is an execrable example of this; Lost Highway is a far better effort, although it tries to cover too much, and consequently does it superficially.

Lost Highway was concocted by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, the men responsible for the earnest but unmemorable The Immigrant; Myler conceived the plotless revue It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues. ATC has produced both those shows in past seasons, and now gives us Lost Highway, which falls halfway between The Immigrant, a traditional story-driven musical with original music, and Blues, a gussied-up nightclub act.

Hank Williams was the most popular of several figures who, in the 1940s and '50s, transformed what was then called "hillbilly" music into the broader-based country genre. A celebrity at 25, dead at 29, Williams cranked out one heartfelt hit after another--from "Move It on Over" through "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Jambalaya" to "Your Cheatin' Heart." But he'd started drinking at age 10, became a full-fledged alcoholic and morphine addict at the height of his success, and was sliding into professional ignominy when he died in the back seat of a car taking him to a ridiculously minor concert appearance, his body laced with substances that didn't belong there.

We've had variations on this story from Mozart to Kurt Cobain. At this point, we really don't need another play or movie that follows some troubled musical genius from his childhood lessons through his brief journeyman period to his sudden fame, which is of course accompanied by hardship on the road and oppression from The Man, which triggers some weakness of character that leads to addiction and flame-out. We've seen it before, and we'll see it again next week. New song, same old lyrics.

This is the weakness of Lost Highway: wasting too much time on the familiar archetype, telling us too little about the individual.

So we start with the miracle of the birth of Hiram Williams, "Skeeter" to his mother, "Harm" to his buddies and "Hank" to everyone else. We see him learn his art from the gospel music in his mother's church and from a street blues singer called Tee-Tot. We see him form a band, the Drifting Cowboys, as a teenager (the personnel didn't actually settle until some years later); marry a strong-willed but untalented floozy farmgirl; and finally get his big break on a Grand Ole Opry broadcast.

That's Act 1, and who needs it? If it were dumped, we'd lose two appealing performers--the compelling Mississippi Charles Bevel as Tee-Tot, who is hardly used in the second act, and the no-nonsense, down-home Margaret Bowman as Mama Lilly, who disappears after intermission. But we'd lose nothing else of value, because the real Hank Williams story doesn't begin until Act 2.

Here's where we see Hank's particular decline, and it's where Myler and Harelik stop telling us he's a self-destructive drunk and finally start showing us. Here is one superb scene in which the action at last develops through the music: The band disintegrates as the drunken Hank hacks his way through a song in some bar that's beneath his talent. If only the entire show had that degree of integration and focus.

At least it has Van Zeiler in the lead role. He does a fine Hank Williams impersonation (performing the songs himself), and is at his best in the quiet, simple sincerity of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Too bad the script allows him to be merely boyish and playful in the first act; clearly, Zeiler would be able to suggest the character's darker potential.

As Audrey, Hank's wife (the first of two, although the show doesn't go into that), Regan Southard valiantly transcends her character's dumb-blonde nature. Patricia Dalen is funny and moving as a waitress who represents Hank's fans, as well as the women he screwed around with, although her character is poorly integrated into the action. Mike Regan does well as the band's manager, although the character ultimately gets lost in the shuffle. Stephen G. Anthony and Myk Watford as Williams' sidemen are equally skilled actors and musicians; H. Drew Perkins and Russ Wever play more than they act, and do it well, although I suspect fiddler Perkins uses the bluegrass "chop" bowstroke far more liberally than it would have been employed before the 1960s.

Lost Highway could have been better, but given the nature of this kind of show, I was expecting far worse. There's something to be said for any show that exceeds one's expectations.