REVIEW: Hank Williams Lives Again in Spartanburg Little Theatre’s Hot Ticket

Photo by Thomas Koening

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The Indisputable hottest ticket in Spartanburg right now is happening at the Chapman Cultural Center this weekend with the nostalgic biographical musical about a country music legend in Spartanburg Little Theatre’s Hank Williams: Lost Highway.

In fact, go ahead and buy your tickets NOW at www.spartanburglittletheatre.com before you finish reading this review because all shows are sold out except Sunday, January 19 @7:30 p.m.

Hank Williams is a hotbed hoedown of stellar music-making and instrumentalists led by Mitchell Smith in the iconic role that he strums through ablaze with authenticity, lanky charm and the talent to back it up.

Written by Randal Myer and Mark Harelik, this thoroughly-entertaining Off-Broadway hit is deftly directed by Kevin Treu with a brisk, natural pacing of Hank’s story from his prodigious but humble beginnings in Great Depression Alabama to the Grand Ole Opry and…beyond.

In a somber opening scene, a radio station broadcasts the news of Williams’ death and a waitress (a perky Miranda Harrison as fictional everywoman who spends much of the show on the sidelines polishing glassware) recalls the funeral that drew 25,000 people, setting us up for a two-hour chronological flashback filled with hillbilly humor, light swaths of Hank exposition, and some three dozen impressive tunes and performances.

Of course, today the circumstance of his alcohol and pharmaceutical induced demise on New Years Day, 1953 in the back seat of a Cadillac on an icy road in West Virginia is infamous, if not conspiratorial.

Smith is physically the spitting image of Williams when he plays acoustic guitar and tells his story through mastery of Hank’s southern country blues brand and that signature yodel in some of the star’s biggest hits such as “Honky Tonk Blues,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Lovesick Blues, “Move It On Over,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “I Saw the Light,” “Lost Highway,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

One of my favorites was “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” many may recall from cover version in the wedding reception dance scene in the film version of Steel Magnolias set in Louisiana (just after “Looks like two pigs fighting under a blanket”).

A mammoth set (the exterior of Rhyman Auditorium in Nashville) doubles as the Opry with a gorgeous bright fly-in (scenic design by Will Ragland) boasts on stage right the chameleon Brian Reeder, one of the Upstate’s most in-demand actors, as Tee-Tot, real name Rufus Payne, who taught Hank guitar and African American influences of blues, negro spirituals and gospel. In this script, he scorns Hank for singing about the black man’s experience when he hasn’t experienced it.

It is Reeder who co-anchors this production, not only due to his omnipresence on stage appearance whether he is in the scene or not, but he delivers the goods in songs like “This is the Way I Go” and “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.”

Hank Williams traces his sweat equity and grueling climb to the top with his stage mother (a resilient Anna Perry) who drives young Hank and his outstanding band The Drifting Cowboys: Hoss (Jordan Hanner) on stand-up bass; Jimmy (Zach Potter). Leon (Chris Strickland) on fiddle, and Shag (Wilson Warren) at the steel guitar.

With Mama Lilly at the wheel of the prop car, the Cowboys grow until they’re squeezed in like sardines by the time Hank falls for Audrey Sheppard (a feisty Logan Blankenship) who he courts for about 2 minutes and then marries at a gas station.

Hank meets his match in Audrey, who is a supposed singer but can’t carry a tune as she first proves in an awful “I’m Tellin’ You.” It takes talent to sing a tune exactly 2 notes off-pitch). And in one of the funniest sequences in the play, Audrey and Mama Lilly square off in a hilarious fit of jealousy and estrogen.

His torrid relationship with Audrey, who also narrates the story sometimes, as well as his growing alcohol and drug dependence, would become a source of heartache and inspiration and fodder for many of his 167 heartache and blues songs (though he could not actually “write” musical notation.)

And veteran actor Lou Butino rounds out the cast in a memorable performance as music publisher and producer Fred Rose, who groomed Hank in the recording business and finally to the Opry, where he was later ousted for his alcoholism.

Williams’ disease and the pressure form his success led him down a path of destruction and damaged his reputation as he stopped showing up at concert dates, or arriving under the influence.

The writers of this musical are not judgmental of Hank Williams. They just let the music speak for itself and rely on Williams self-awareness of his sins on a “lost highway.”

Hank Williams features music direction under tutelage of longtime SLT collaborator Joy Finch, lighting by Peter Lamson, Elizabeth Gray’s terrific period costumes, Katherine Rausch’s props and scenic painting, and stage management by Stephanie Freeman

Not having seen “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” episode of Ken Burn’s recent documentary Country Music, or Jimmy O. Burdette’s numerous sold-out productions of Hank Williams over the years at Clemson Little Theatre, Abbeville Opera House among others, I never connected with Hank Williams or his music.

The Carter Family? Yes, but other than being mildly amused and dismissive of “All my Rowdy Friends” by Junior in the 1980s, I never dug into the father’s songbook before this SLT production.

But I am now a Hankie? Or is it a Hanker? Hankering?

Hank Williams: Lost Highway continues for one more smashing soon-to-be-holdout weekend January 17-19 with tickets available ONLY for the 7:30 pm. show Sunday. Tickets are nearly gone so call (864) 542-ARTS or visit www.spartanburglittletheatre.com.

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