If the good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise, then the Infinity Theatre Company will have you on your way down to Annapolis to see Hank Williams: Lost Highway starring the Off-Broadway role originator Jason Petty. The Tony Award-Winning company is back for their fifth season in Annapolis and ready to bring a hint of hillbilly happiness along with them. Directed by Randal Myler, one of the show’s original creators (co-created with Mark Harelik) with Musical Direction by Stephen G. Anthony, this superb experience tells the true story of how Hank Williams skyrocketed to fame practically overnight and the struggles he faced because of his singing success. A touching, evocative musical, Infinity Theatre Company has once again succeeded in reviving a lost classic, restoring it to a brilliant production well worth the effort of coming to see.
Scenic Designer Paul Tate DePoo III gets the down home country feel of Alabama and all those southern states etched right into the wood work of the set. From the little backwoods diner off to the right side of the stage to the rustic old front porch for Tee-Tot off to the left, DePoo transports the audience back to a time gone by; a time when country music was still called hillbilly and blues. The stage itself, which serves as the performance stage in local bars, the recording studio, and even the Grand Ole Opry, is an enormous, albeit simple, wooden construct that really lets the audience focus on the performances of Hank Williams and his band as they unfold.
Costume Designer Tristan Raines brings that nostalgic feel of cowboys long gone into his design work. The suits used for Hank Williams are elegant with a touch of that old-fashioned southern class. Between the crisp blue suit for taking the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and the dazzling all-white suite laced with musical notes for the finale, Raines keeps Hank Williams looking tried and true throughout the production. Even the members of his band look road-ready in their brown duds with a hint of rhinestone and shine to them. The overall costuming aesthetic fits the period and location like a well-worn pair of cowboy boots.
Director Randal Myler takes a tragically beautiful story and essentially lets it tell itself. With everyone having a ripe southern accent and a mastery of the how words sounded in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the show ends up feeling authentic and natural, as if the audience has somehow turned a page back in history and is now watching it play out in real time. Guiding the narrating focus of the show from person to person, Myler ensures that everyone tells Hank Williams’ story and the way he blocks the production, so that Hank is ever present even once he has died, is a truly haunting and yet magically inspiring way to feel that the legend is always a part of the show.
The talent that the company has wrangled into the performance— including the man who originated the Hank Williams role for this show— is sensational. Strong voices with excellent senses of harmonies, pitch, and rhythm; the cast understands how to emote through the musical device of hillbilly music. The women of the production, though they don’t really get to do much singing— and thank the good Lord as their characters were meant to be seen and not heard— give outstanding performances consistently throughout the show.
The Waitress (Samantha Whitbeck) who does little more than represent the every-girl opinion on Hank Williams from the moment she hears of his death back through her strange personal encounter with him, makes her presence felt. Always in the lower right corner of the stage at the diner, Whitbeck mouths along to all the songs she hears on the radio, a touching notion of how his music inspired thousands without his ever even knowing it. Playing the fussy Miss Audrey (Rachel Womble) is no easy job especially when Hank is so charming. Womble, who carries her off-pitch tunes with pride, is a refreshing blast of fun in the saga, especially once she gets to knocking heads with Mama (Becky Barta.)
Barta, who is featured only at the beginning of the production, is a smoking pistol. The old saying in regards to mama’s and everyone else’s happiness applies to the performance as she tries to keep the other characters in-line. Her matter-of-fact nature is both amusing and exacting; a true mother of a country star who burned out long before his time.
The most impressive voice in the production aside from the title character comes from Tee-Tot (Mississippi Charles Bevel.) With a soulful voice that blasts the blues Bevel stuns the audience with his original and unique sound. A blend caught somewhere between gospel, hillbilly, and blues, Bevel makes duets with Jason Petty, like their verse during “I Saw the Light (Reprise)” sound stellar. His solo sound for haunting choruses of “The Blood Done Sign My Name” is like a preacher trying to save the soul of a sinner on Sunday. His character, combined with that incredible voice, makes for a truly amazing performance.
Of course old Hank wouldn’t be nothing without his band. Leon (Drew Perkins) Jimmy (Zack Steele) and Hoss (Stephen G. Anthony) make for a trio of fine instrumentalists and vocalists to boot. Perkins, who joins the band just a little later than the other two as ‘Loudmouth’ showcases phenomenal skills on his fiddle practically sawing smoke over the strings as he rips out tune after tune. Perkins’ musical talents are not limited to just the fiddle, however. Taking on a miniature classy looking banjo, the harmonica, and the spoons, he proves himself to be a real music man who even gets to sing a bit with a real clear tone.
When Perkins, Steele and Anthony get to singing their solo number “Way Downtown” it becomes a comic free-for-all. While their voices are brilliant in this number it’s the corny jokes and timing with which they deliver them that really grabs the audience’s attention. Steele plays a mean guitar and Anthony makes some mighty fine music on his bass; culminating perfect tones to underscore any song sang by Hank.
Jason Petty in the lead as the title character is practically channeling the spirit of Hank Williams from beyond the grave. His acting is stellar; the accent true to Williams’ southern roots without sounding too overdone. His emotions run high as his plight progresses and we get a world of unfortunate delivered right before our eyes every time something else turns sour in this young musician’s life. But it is his singing that mesmerizes the audience and holds them serenely captive for the duration of the performance.
With a clear cut sound and a true understanding of how to work the ‘yodeling’ sound of Hank Williams into these songs, Petty is a musical dynamite. When he finally gets to sing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” the raw anguish and sorrow of his tumultuous life comes through in every note. The versatility that Petty displays, moving from harrowing numbers like the one just mentioned to more upbeat feel-good pieces like “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” is astonishing; his ability to temper each number with just the right amount of country heart and soul truly making his performance a vocal masterpiece. Even at the top of the show, the very first number he sings as Hank “Message to My Mother” sends an eerie feeling of hearing a voice lost to the past resonating out over the audience. Petty gives the performance of a lifetime, the closest thing anyone will ever come to seeing and hearing Hank Williams in all his living glory.
The story is gripping; tragic but true, and well worth seeing the phenomenal effort that has gone into making this forgotten tale a brilliant revival down at the Infinity Theatre Company.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway plays through June 29, 2014 at Infinity Theatre Company at The Children’s Theatre of Annapolis Complex— 1661 Bay Head Road in Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (877) 501-8499, or purchase them online.