Jukebox musicals tend to be happy, peppy shows where the hits of an artist or a genre are strung together with a minimal story to create a fan-pleasing production. But what do you do with a story that ends with its star dead in the back seat of a Cadillac?
Well, if you’re Randal Myler and Mark Harelik you start with that depressing bit of business and then go back to the beginning, which is just what they did with Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has a production running through May 1.
Audio of a radio station announcement of Williams’ death opens the show, followed by the introductions of Hank’s mother ‘Mama Lilly’ (Jill Wagoner). She starts reminiscing about Hank (Steve Lasiter) as a young boy, his mentoring by Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne (local music legend Levi Lloyd), driving him to honky-tonk one-nighters with his band (Michael Leal Price, Derek Brooker, Paul Shelasky, Michael Capella), his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Jennifer Barnaba), and finally hitting it big after connecting with music publisher Fred “Pap” Rose (Peter Downey).
The second act brings Hank’s descent, the end of his marriage, and the end of his life on that final road trip.
Myler and Harelik’s book of the show is pretty much a standard musical bio, with Williams abbreviated life compressed even further. There’s nary a mention of a second wife, and the source of Williams’ demons and addictions is never really explored beyond “back pain”.
But, oh, the music that is played. You’ll hear all of Williams’ hits (“Lovesick Blues”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Hey, Good Lookin’”, etc.) and songs you may never have heard before. Lasiter may bear little physical resemblance to Williams, but he vocally captures the spirit of the hillbilly singer/songwriter and does fine with the character. The band is great with Shelasky’s fiddlin’ a definite highlight. Lloyd acts as sort of a one-man Greek chorus, demonstrating why he’s one of the area’s finest blues musicians.
Wagoner is solid as Mama Lilly (and is sorely missed in the second act) as is Downey as Rose. Barnaba does well as the woman in Hank’s life with musical aspirations of her own. Ellen Rawley handles her role as an exposition-spouting waitress with aplomb.
Even if you’re not a fan of country music, you might enjoy Hank Williams: Lost Highway. It hits all the right notes.
‘Hank Williams: Lost Highway’ runs through May 1 in the GK Hardt Theatre at 6th Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth Street, Santa Rosa. Thur., Fri. & Sat., 7:30pm; Sat. & Sun., 2pm. $32–$45. 707.523.4185. 6thstreeetplayhouse.com. Proof of vaccination and masking are required to attend.
Photos by Eric Chazankin
This review originally apppeared in an edited version in the North Bay Bohemian and Pacific Sun.