Chicago Theatre Review
Back on the Road Again
Hank Williams: Lost Highway – American Blues Theatre
After sold-out houses, last year’s critically successful bio-musical, which tells the story of one of music’s most influential, groundbreaking songwriter/entertainers, kicks off ABT’s 29th season. This production returns for a limited summer run with its original cast of actor/singer/musicians ready for action. For country music fans of that special kind of music once celebrated at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and for audiences who enjoy stories of Americana, this show can’t be beat.
Director Damon Kiely has created a finely nuanced, cohesive story out of Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s somewhat patchwork portrayal of Hank Williams. Told with a fine balance of humor and pathos and filled with energetic performances portraying so many likable, relatable characters, Mr. Kiely has staged a production that’s both warm and wise. With its toe-tapping soundtrack of “hillbilly” classics framing each scene, this production will charm even the most jaded playgoer.
Of course, this entire cast is once again perfection. Matthew Brumlow recreates his much-acclaimed role of Hiram “Hank” Williams with a boyish charisma that serves this production well. Whether playing Hank as a bespectacled southern youngster barely surviving under his mama’s strict care and management (played with broad humor and sweet-natured feistiness by Suzanne Petri), or soaring at the height of his musical career and relishing his meteoric success, Brumlow is wonderful.
Williams’ band members, made up of boyhood pals and one seasoned newcomer, would’ve made the real Hank Williams proud. Renaissance man Michael Mahler, Chicago’s favorite composer, musician and actor/singer, plays expert guitarist Jimmy with amiability and guts. Austin Cook, the talented, charismatic actor, pianist and emcee of Porchlight’s “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” Theo Ubique’s “Some Enchanted Evening” and Jerry Lee Lewis in the first national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” plays bass player Hoss with a youthful sincerity and honest enthusiasm. Greg Hirte, fiddler extraordinaire, plays Leon, Hank Williams‘ country violinist and mandolin player with finesse and fire. And John Foley, co-author of Broadway’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” plays Shag, caressing Williams’ country sound with his expert musicality and mature groundedness.
Veteran actor James Leaming plays the group’s manager Fred Rose with a gentle, paternal empathy that makes his care for the singer so special. Cora Vander Broek is very funny as Williams‘ untalented wannabe-singer and wife, Audrey. The singer’s first inspiration to be a guitarist and singer is embodied by Byron Glenn Willis as an understated, beautifully portrayed Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. One of the real standouts in this cast is Dana Black, whose Waitress represents all those everyday folks who ever loved Hank Williams and swooned over his music on the radio. Ms. Black is irresistibly lovable and a comedic dynamo worthy of her own play. The scene when she unexpectedly meets her singing idol in person is one audiences will take home with them.
A welcomed return to Chicago, this musical tells the story of one of America’s true musical geniuses. It will charm and enlighten audiences, both those who love his tunes like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Hey, Good Lookin’,” as well as those unfamiliar with the young singer/composer. Williams’ struggle with pain, drugs and booze is sad but its his music that makes this production so special. This wonderful cast will send playgoers home with a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 25-August 31 by American Blues Theater at the Greenhouse Theater Center mainstage space, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-404-7336 or by going to www.AmericanBluesTheater.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.