The rise and fall of a promising artist who died young (think Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, etc.) generally follows a familiar pattern: meteoric rise to fame followed by a slow downward spiral to the grave. But that’s not the most effective structure for entertainment. And so it is with the musical bio now at the Laguna Playhouse, “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” Act one works up considerable interest in Williams’ personal life and musical inspiration, followed by a long, uncomfortable wallow in misery, sucking out much of the delight without affording particular insight. Fortunately, the music triumphs throughout.
On Vicki M. Smith’s attractive, pastel-shaded collage of hillbilly roots — a semicircular performing space, backed by church windows and flanked by cutouts of a service station and off-road diner — the brief (29 years) and singularly unhappy life of the legendary country pioneer (Van Zeiler) is sometimes dramatized but mostly discussed, in the words of indomitable maw (Margaret Bowman); good ole boy backup men the Drifting Cowboys (Stephen G. Anthony, Mark Baczynski, Myk Watford and Russ Wever); and Audrey (Regan Southard), the big-haired opportunist whom Hank loves not wisely but too well.
Authors Randal Myler and Mark Harelik hint first at Hank’s musical influences — early exposure to gospel, and tutelage from African-American bluesman Tee-Tot (Mississippi Charles Bevel) — and then at the seeds of his demise: a predisposition for hell-raisin’, wife Audrey’s fecklessness and a painkiller dependency caused by a back injury, which we must take on faith since it’s mentioned early but almost never again.
Though these hints don’t ever amount to a full-fledged interpretation of the man, there’s plenty of soul-baring song along the highway from hardscrabble one-nighters to glory at the Grand Ole Opry. Zeiler is fleshy rather than rail-thin, and he doesn’t at all convey Hank’s painful shyness, but his nasal wheedle and smooth swooping in and out of throat-catching yodels perfectly capture the sound that inspired countless R&B, folk and rock artists in his wake.
The improvised creation of “Mind Your Own Business” feels fresh and believable, and Williams’ mass appeal and star quality need no explication, self-evident in the triumphant Opry “Lovesick Blues” that ends act one.
Then follows the mostly unrelieved cavalcade of questionable choices — those made by Hank and by the writers of this play. It’s not so much that we can’t decide why he’s so lonesome he could cry; who could ever be sure? It’s that for most of act two, we don’t ever see him trying to resist his demons. He careens across the stage to slap down friends and pass out as if the show had suddenly become a musical version of “Leaving Las Vegas.” Tedious self-pity — encapsulated in a latenight fling with a waitress (Stephanie Cozart); so much for that alleged bad back — wipes away much of the good feeling from before.
It doesn’t help that Southard never gets a handle on whether Audrey is a cunning predator or just clueless, nor that the Drifting Cowboys, gifted as they are as singers and musicians, are indistinguishable as personalities under Myler’s direction. (Their extended “Hee-Haw” number, “Way Downtown,” garners few laughs and lasts for an eternity.)
Transcending the cliche of the long-suffering manager, Mike Regan adds thoughtful perspective, but the absence of Bowman’s ironclad moral authority in act two is both regrettable and puzzling, since Mamma Lilly outlived her son. Why do we not see her try to intervene with Hank at his lowest ebb?
Through it all, Dan Wheetman’s musical direction ensures that the script’s weaknesses never get in the way of our enjoyment of a steel guitar or mandolin, ringing out in a theater to send a chill up the spine.
Show is at its most trenchant in the one scene in which Tee-Tot gets to be a real character, as opposed to a mystical blues inspiration on the sidelines. Instructing young Hank not to trade on others’ hard times (“you got to get your own,” Hank is told, and boy, does he), Bevel holds the last sweet note of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” longer than seems humanly possible. The flash of joyous recognition in the boy’s eyes — oh, so this is what music can be! — is a window into the otherwise unknowable soul of this particular musical genius.