Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Hank's for the Memories as 'Lost Highway' Proves Well-Worth a Song -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hank Williams: Lost Highway
by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik
directed by Damon Kiely
American Blues Theater
at Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
Thru October 12

It's often been said that there's a fine line between genius and insanity, and I have found both--or some derivation thereof--equally difficult to have acutely depicted and defined upon a theatrical stage, particularly in the context of musical biographies of musicians.

For there are many artists who showcase talent and perseverance without rising to the level of being famous, let alone legendary. Likewise, infinite numbers of people  suffer hardships, sorrow and insecurities without--fortunately--experiencing the devastating lows that make headlines when a star dies via suicide, substance abuse or some combination thereof.

So I understand the inherent challenge, but having seen stage bios of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Fela Kuti, Buddy Holly,  and now Hank Williams, I can't say any have given me particular insight into what made their subjects exceptional--beyond the brilliance of their music.

To be fair, a Rolling Stone piece on Kurt Cobain that I read earlier on Sunday before seeing Hank Willams: Lost Highway didn't come that much closer to defining the intangible, nor did a fictional play--Reverb--that covered similar ground. Even Martin Scorsese's bio-docs on Bob Dylan and George Harrison were best simply for the performance clips. (A documentary I recently saw about Ginger Baker was noteworthy for showing what was different and distinctive about his style of drumming.)

So while I enjoyed Lost Highway for the music, the performances and what I did learn about Hank Williams, it was--not all that surprisingly--considerably more entertaining than enlightening.

Williams is one of those icons who--in the spirit of what I call Associative Learning--I have long known of, but other than a handful of songs and that he died young, didn't know all that much about.

Lost Highway, written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik and nearing the end of an acclaimed and successful run at the comfortable Greenhouse Theater Center under the direction of Damon Kiely, did fill in various gaps when it came to basic familiarity with Williams' biography. 

And as Hank, Matthew Brumlow was terrific, as was the luminous Laura Coover as his wife Audrey. And in embodying Williams' backing band, the Drifting Cowboys, Austin Cook, Michael Mahler, Greg Hirte and John Foley, sounded great in playing their instruments onstage, as did Brumlow. Suzanne Petri, as Hank's mom and initially his manager, was also noteworthy.

Songs such as "Lovesick Blues," "Move it on Over," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Jambalaya," "Lost Highway," a plaintive "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and the show-closing "I Saw The Light" were a pleasure to hear. And as the deterioration of Hank's marriage and health due to heavy boozing depicted, one certainly got a "brush strokes" concept of his life's triumphs and tragedy.

So though you only have a few more opportunities to get to the current run, if you like Hank Williams or care to acquaint yourself with one of the greatest legends of country--or any type of music--particularly with discount tickets available for most performances through HotTix and Goldstar, Lost Highway is well worth the trip.

But in terms of providing any real depth in explaining what made Williams' music so groundbreaking, his legacy so large or his fall--into and from substance abuse--so precipitous, this show doesn't go any further than others of its ilk.

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