REVIEW – Hank Williams: Lost Highway – Douglas Morrison Theatre

The acting ante is certainly being upped as more and more shows about musicians are being produced; shows where it is absolutely essential that the actors expertly play their own instruments. While I’m always in awe of any actor, and particularly in a musical or musician that sings and plays simultaneously, having to stay on script and have a solid rapport with your fellow actors, in addition to keeping time and hitting notes, always impresses the heck out of me.  Hank Williams: Lost Highway from Douglas Morrisson Theatre is one of these shows and has employed a talented cast, all of who skillfully navigate the humorous and emotional script and many of whom double/triple the pleasure with some really fine musicianship. It is a fantastic, deep, well told story and it’s easily one of my favorite shows I’ve seen in the last year. I’m sad it closes this week, I’d see this one over and over if I could. Make it if you can, it’s a fine example of extremely talented people making seriously great art.

This cast, this entire production, owns it from the first moment. There is a rare cohesiveness to this ensemble and a level of comfort with each other that results in immediate buy in. The visual tableaus, the gentle lighting, and the resonating richness of notes that fill the space, nearly had me in tears in the initial moments based just on how well it all comes together. How sincere it all felt. How small and momentous all at once a life can be.  And, that initial empathy follows all the way through to the last second of the play (a particularly amazing feat given that the play starts with quite a big spoiler alert and still manages to gut you at the end). This is a completely told story and an exceptionally told one; a witty and wonderful and tragic and true story that I really enjoyed.

What a phenomenal group of actors/musicians. Every one of them perfectly cast, not a weak link among them. You adore who you are supposed to adore, you’re irritated by who you’re intended to be irritated by, you’re sympathetic to ALL of these characters who feel like your friends and neighbors and people you think you know somehow and yeah, maybe talked a bit of crap about them behind their back when you were a bit tipsy. Yes, we sympathize with Hank and all the people in Hank’s sphere and path of collateral damage. All those who try to help and also know he had his own great, brief path, and there wasn’t any changing that (and if you did, it would probably ruin what was most remarkable about him).I probably couldn’t be further from the demographic of this “town” and yet I was ready to bring casserole over and sneak some moonshine behind the church.

This unique urge step in to the world emotionally is as much a credit to the cast and production I think as to the script. The narrative parts needed to guide us through the timeline are dealt with so wonderfully. Not dry at all or full of phoned-in exposition, no… our waitress, manager “pap” and Mama Lily in particular spin it in their own charming, individual way, as if we really were listening to it in a diner, the alley, or on the front porch. The language (a combination of warm soulful drawling banter and colorful, brassy, singularly Southern idioms) bonds the cast to the audience like its own concoction of crazy glue. We like ALL of these people. A lot. Even when they are being bossy, or flakey, immature, or selfish and self destructive. And, rather than demonize anyone or anyone’s actions, or cheapen the production with unnecessary drama, it all flows from an authentic human, space.  It’s not about right or wrong, this play doesn’t take a moral stance, it just shows a trajectory; and it does so admirably.

Hank makes it look so damn easy. Every bit of it. It’s hard enough to do what he has to on stage, but when a fair number of us are familiar with the man he portrays, the real life person, it’s so hard not to cross into imitation. Our actor never once tries to BE Hank, he just is. Despite knowing how it all turns out, our audience was actively hoping maybe there’d be a different ending, we like him that much despite some serious flaws and personality challenges.

Our actor playing Tee-Tot opens his mouth and I swear, he could be singing the alphabet and he would still stir souls.  What a gift he is. What a lovely present his entire presence is. And, the boys in the band. Yes, you too Mr. Steel guitar trying to hide, you too. Oh boys, come hang in my office would you and just joke and sing all day? Pretty please with sugar on top? And, let’s talk about how hard it is to be the girl who can sing, but isn’t supposed to stay on key, or rhythm, and is supposed to grate on your nerves. Yes, Audrey, we don’t really “like” you…but we do, we really, really do.

I hardly ever comment on directing because its quite hard to actually tell where the director has made their mark as it often blurs with script or musical direction or actor choices. THIS show has clear wonderful detail in the direction. Placement, movement, pacing, it could not have been more perfect. Such beautiful staging and fine, subtle, consistent attention to those little things that skate the line between authenticity and “THEATER”… where a flask is thrown, how it then gets moved; organically, naturally. How everyone we see on stage is part of the community of the play and we don’t notice when that mic stand got moved.  Choices to have an actor take a loooongggg walk across the stage or take a final disappointed glance before disappearing into the vom. These are examples of great choices for this piece in this space and while there’s certainly a gifted, natural cast at play here, I’m willing to bet the director had a huge hand (more than normal) in tying everything together in this phenomenal package.

As always the DMT technical team has out done themselves starting with the choice to do this show in this space. That’s a win right out of the gate as you might as well be a the high ceilinged yet down home Grand Old Opry. Shadows, oh so slight reverb on a mic for almost subliminal, but powerful effect… props, costuming, all of it is spot on that you hardly notice it’s a SHOW and have no challenge seeing a car on stage with just levels, a suggested grill and some head lights.

I’ve spent way too much time trying to articulate (and failing) at something that you just need to see. A truthful, engaging and lovely production it gets a 5 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for being a fabulous ,well-rounded tribute to Hank Williams and a masterful piece of theater. Hank Williams: Lost Highway plays through April 26th at the Douglas Morrison Theatre in Hayward.

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