After seeing Friday's performance of Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, I am reassessing my typical disdain for jukebox musicals, particularly those that are biographies of particular artists wrapped inside collections of their greatest hits. Playwrights Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, here, managed to create a work that - in addition to being cohesive and easy to follow - nicely weaves Williams' hits into the story and is incredibly interesting to boot. And thanks to a pleasingly lengthy, Hee-Haw-esque scene in the middle of the second act, Myler and Harelik also avoid the seemingly too-frequent theatrical trend of shows with second acts that are much too serious and downbeat.
John R. Briggs' casual though not unpolished direction of this biographical play makes Circa '21's production an easy watch that also delivers the passion, energy, and emotion of Williams' music and life. Lost Highway opens with the ever-endearing Rachelle Walljasper, in her role as Mama Lilly, telling us a bit about the country singer's childhood, after which we're introduced to the greatest musical influence on Williams' life: Tee-Tot, a black man who helps infuse the blues into Williams' style. (The role is played, with a raspy tinge to his voice, by Tony D. Owens Jr., who appears repeatedly throughout the piece but is not a physically present character; he seems more like a ghost of influence ever-present in Williams' songs.) And from there, the musical guides us through Williams' early years as a musician, his marriage, his musical successes, and eventually his self-perpetuated, drunken demise.
Williams' musical genre is not one to which I gravitate. However, with the presentation of his songs aided greatly by the show's live musicians - the cast members each play their own instruments here - I enjoyed every last one in Lost Highway, particularly the ones I was already familiar with, such as "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Each group number is impressively performed both instrumentally and vocally by Briggs' cast, with Canaan Cox standing out for his awesome fiddle playing as Williams' bandmate Leon.
Interestingly, however, it's Nina Schreckengost's poor vocal pitch that's most notable about her performance as Williams' wife Audrey, because remembering the actor's remarkable belt voice in Circa '21s Smokey Joe's Café last year, it was apparent to me that Schreckengost was intentionally singing off-pitch, which was right for the character and not necessarily easy for a good singer to do. Audrey's bad notes come across as natural rather than forced, and add to the believability of Schreckengost's Audrey.
Yet it's Williams, of course, who's the centerpiece of the show, and Jonathan Scott Roth's fluid, rich, rather dreamy vocals in the role are quite easy on the ears. Meanwhile, his best acting in the part comes during a highly emotional scene in which Williams unveils the lyrics to his new song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." After accusing a bandmate of sleeping with his wife and threatening him with a gun, Williams begs him to stay rather than storm off, and convinces the man to forgive him by handing over a piece of paper with the song's lyrics written on it. Filled with pain and loneliness, those lyrics express Williams' personal feelings and experience, and in that moment, Williams' emotions are completely palpable in Roth's performance.
It's worth noting that the whole audience seemed to have a great time watching Hank Williams: Lost Highway, given their enthusiastic applause and their rush to get to their feet at the musical's end. The encore number performed by the cast was received with equal exhilaration, and, in my opinion, should have been; Circa '21's production is a fun, dramatic, thoroughly engaging piece of country-music history.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through March 9, and more information and reservations are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.