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Let the music spin you along 'Lost Highway'
By Pat Craig

 09/13/2007

Biographies of musicians rarely end happily.

So it's little surprise that "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," which opened Tuesday in Walnut Creek's Lesher Center, is a musical tale of a self-inflicted tragedy. It's the dramatized version of the life of Williams, one of the men who moved country music into town from the hills. He died at 29, in the back seat of a car, the victim of drinkin' and druggin'.

But what is celebrated in the show is not the tragedy of Williams, but the triumph of a tortured man who produced a lasting legacy of music despite the pain and torment that dogged him throughout his career.

In spite of the obvious tragic nature of Williams' life, the musical will leave you smiling, simply because of the startling array of music the singer left behind -- tunes such as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," songs that could be the soundtrack to anyone's life.

While the show presents enough biography to give a basic idea of who the man was, the piece focuses primarily on the music, which is performed by a hugely talented group of musicians whose playing would impress event the most diehard fan of the Williams style.

Director Michael Butler spent a longer-than-average amount of time casting the show, and appears to have focused on musicianship as he assembled the cast. The work paid off, because the musical performers, from Williams (played by Robert Brewer) to the members of the onstage band, are outstanding musicians.

They act well, but the strong suit throughout the show is the singing, and the cast gets plenty of opportunity to fire up and take the audience on a soul-stirring journey though Williams material.

Butler has used Melpomene Katakalos' attractive set to serve as both a practical stage for the Williams character and the band and as place to let the story unfold in a charmingly theatrical manner. The set serves as a number of locations, including an abstract piece of countryside, where parts from a post-war Cadillac poke from the foliage, to a fishing stream, a truck-stop lunch counter, and occasionally the car that takes the performers from gig to gig.

There is one fascinatingly surreal character, Tee-Tot (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), based on blues singer Rufus Payne, who taught Williams to sing. He has only one brief scene with Williams and spends most of the show as something of a mysterious and ethereal character who takes part in the action, but from a distance.

The show is well-crafted, but its engine is the music. In fact, there is little doubt that it is the music that makes these musical biographies so popular. Randal Myler, who co-wrote this one with Mark Harelik, has created several of these bios, including pieces on Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas and John Denver. Each has a small but informative biographical thread that unfolds throughout the show, and an enormous musical element that makes each of the shows play like a concert appearance by the featured performer.

It's a great way to satisfy fans of the various performers, and to introduce younger audience members to the legends from the past.


Director's love of music plays into 'Hank'
Contra Costa Times by Pat Craig

"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" is Michael Butler's kind of play.

"I have to admit I have a complete soft spot for plays about music, musicians and making music," says Butler, Center Rep's artistic director and director of the biographical musical that opens the company's season Sept. 11 (the show begins previews Sept. 6). "I like plays about making art in general, and this one is particularly good because it does justice to the subject as both a good biography of Hank Williams and something with a real respect for his music."

The story is also pretty unflinching in telling the dark side of the story of the hard-drinking and drug-using musician who died in 1953 at the age of 29.

"He really had only four years at the top, and in those years he had 14 Top 10 hits," says Butler, who supported himself as a musician in New York before turning his focus to theater. "There are some people who say without Williams, there would be no rock."

Williams, like a number of country music performers coming up in the postwar years, created music that appealed to the traditional fans of the hillbilly and blues music of the deep South, but also flavored it to suit the changing tastes of audiences that had moved to more urbanized areas to work in defense industries.

"He didn't do it all himself, but the music wouldn't have gone in the direction it did without him. More than anybody, he took hillbilly music and put it with blues and gospel to kind of fuse it into the perfect

mix," Butler says. "And when you consider the songs he wrote ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Your Cheatin' Heart") and the people who eventually recorded them (from Lou Reed to Lawrence Welk), you have to realize what a great contribution he made."

Production of the show depends on both strong acting and musical performances, so Butler made sure he had a actor to play the title role even before announcing his intention to produce the play. From there, he looked for strong musician/actors to perform in the band that backs the Williams' character.

Butler was impressed with the musicians who auditioned and cast some of them in roles not requiring them to play instruments.