Mike Ness, reigning first chair of Orange County's rock orchestra, on Hank Williams' impact upon American music:
"Rock & roll would not be what it is today without people like Hank Williams," Ness writes in Callboard, the Laguna Playhouse's playgoer's guide. "You can also tell the young kids that if they don't have Hank Williams in their music library yet, they have not been schooled."
A great entry point in the education of anyone on this seminal figure of Americana is Hank Williams: Lost Highway, a rollicking musical biography of Williams as evocative and sharply written a play as it is a rousing, kick-ass testament to the enduring power of his music.
Written by Randal Myler (who also wrote two above-average musical tributes, It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues and Love, Janis) and Mark Harelik, who local audiences might remember from stellar acting work at South Coast Repertory (Tartuffe, The Hollow Lands), Lost Highway is exuberant fun, but also a starkly serious examination of the life and legacy of a man suffused in musical talent, but so skinny "he could change clothes in the barrel of a shotgun."
It begins with Williams' death on New Year's Day 1953, and then briskly moves along his destitute upbringing in rural Alabama, his street-level music education, his meteoric rise to fame, and his just-as-sudden alcohol- and pill-fueled deterioration until his demise at the age of 29.
Along the way, there are 27 songs (in whole or partial), ranging from Williams' hillbilly-by-way–of-Highway-61 chestnuts ("Mind Your Own Business," "I Saw the Light," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues") to more gospel- and blues-inflected numbers sung by a major influence of Williams': a streetwise black musician named Tee-Tot (a stentorian Mississippi Charles Bevel), the play's musical conscience.
No two-hour play can tell Williams' whole story, or positively convince the wary that he was anything but a hokey tear-in-your-beer-yodeling rube. But Lost Highway comes close, showing that Williams' natural talent approached Louis Armstrong-level in his ability to alchemize existing musical forms such as blues, gospel and hillbilly folk into something new: country, which gave us plenty of good (Steve Earle, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt) and plenty of Toby Keith.
Lost Highway also shows that Williams was one hell of a hell-raiser, and that his raging inner demons—his battles with the bottle and broken heart are well-documented in this play—were amply exercised, if not exorcised, onstage.
The cast includes many of the original New York and national-touring-production actors, as well as several stunningly talented musicians, including the aforementioned Bevel, steel guitarist Russ Wever and fiddler extraordinaire Mark Baczynski.
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But it's Van Zeiler's Williams who must command this show, and he does. Though not as gaunt as the real Williams, Zeiler eerily channels a healthy portion of Williams' vocal mannerisms and is purely believable performing Williams' material on stages as varied as rough-and-tumble honky-tonks to the Grand Ol' Opry, as well as portraying Williams' turbulent offstage life.
That performance, coupled with the surprisingly smart (for a play with music) words, displays how unique Williams was in the era of crooners and doggies-in-the-window—he was a real man who wrote real songs and brought heartfelt immediacy and introspection to popular music.
And anyone who doubts that an uneducated hillbilly can match the power and profundity of a Shakespeare sonnet or academically sanctioned poet laureate isn't listening when Zeiler performs perhaps Williams' most achingly personal (and starkly brilliant) song, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." If you ain't grateful for Hank's schoolin' by the end of Lost Highway, you're on the wrong road.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2787; www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Also Nov. 25 & Dec. 9, 7 p.m. Through Dec. 16. $25-$65; half-price student tickets available weeknights and Sat. matinees.