An overbearing and loving mother nurtures her talented son's singing gifts in church. He practices, improves, starts a band, and attains great success until playing a major performance venue, when he becomes something of a superstar. Yet even success takes its toll, and the argumentative star (who wants to do things how he wants, not the way others want), quickly finds himself on a downward spiral of alcohol abuse that wrecks his marriage, threatens to kill his career, and eventually leads to his death.
Sound familiar? It should. It's the type of tale typically found on TV shows like VH1's Behind the Music or E!'s True Hollywood Story, and it could be the story of almost any major singer. Specifically, however, this is the depressingly conventional story told in Randal Myler and Mark Harelik's book for Hank Williams: Lost Highway, the musical retelling of the country star's life now being presented at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre.
For such a unique voice in 20th century popular music, scene after scene fails to depict Williams as someone who would stand out in the crowd. From Williams's arguments with his manager (Michael P. Moran) and his drunken dalliance with a doting waitress (Juliet Smith), we've seen all this before.
The most surprising aspects of the book are that, despite watering Williams's life down into the most basic terms, it's the only part of the production that doesn't click, and it can't prevent Hank Williams: Lost Highway from being a highly satisfying and thoroughly entertaining show. The excellent collection of songs at the show's core, and winning cast (led by Jason Petty in the title role) to present them, are able to overcome most of the book's deficiencies.
Myler, too, seems more determined in his direction than his book to create a unique show that looks and feels unlike many others. While Smith appears only in a couple of scenes, and the character of Tee-Tot, Williams's early singing inspiration is left behind early on, the two are almost never offstage. Both poised on opposite ends of Beowulf Boritt's very full set, Howell serves as Williams's musical conscience and Smith as one representative of his audience. Their reactions to the songs as they're being sung (or played on the radios to which they each listen), frequently speak volumes about Williams's influence on others in a way the book itself frequently fails to provide.
As for the songs, they're a surprisingly well-balanced and cohesive group for this type of show, almost never functioning as "plot" numbers but rather performance numbers which, through the stage action during their performances or the content of the lyrics themselves, reflect book developments. As Williams's songs - full of heart and character, but generally not story - weren't written for plot situations in musicals, this was another fine choice on the creators' parts. Songs like "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)," "Mind Your Own Business," "Hey, Good Lookin'," and "Your Cheatin' Heart" - as but four examples out of twenty five or so - stand on their own perfectly well.
Petty is the cast's particular standout, and quite good at acting and singing Williams. But his backup band, the Drifting Cowboys, comprising Stephen G. Anthony, Myk Watford, Drew Perkins, and Russ Wever, provide top-notch support. Michael W. Howell has a powerful voice but not much stage time, while Margaret Bowman (as Williams's mother) is funny and emotional in her scenes. Tertia Lynch makes the most of her difficult (and underwritten) role as Williams's wife, Audrey. Moran, likewise, has a stock character, but does as much as can be expected with it.
Though this show is not the most ideal tribute to the singer imaginable, it's still well worth the time and highly recommended for country music fans or theatre artists planning to put together their own book show containing pre-existing songs. Lose the cliche-ridden book, and Hank Williams: Lost Highway does everything else right.
Manhattan Ensemble Theater