Jason Petty and cast in Hank Williams: Lost Highway(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
Jason Petty and cast in Hank Williams: Lost Highway
(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
Depending on how much Hank Williams addicts crave a fix of the po' boy's music, they'll either rise to their boot-shod feet and cheer director-playwright Randal Myler's stage tribute to the revered singer-songwriter or hold it at a distance with one hand and hold their nose with the other.

Yes, the songs in Hank Williams: Lost Highway are treated spectacularly, with one irritating exception. Jason Petty, who first played the doomed country star at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in 1996 and has the part down as pat as is humanly possible, looks enough like the man he's impersonating to fool the casual observer and sings with the same pulsating, metallic tone. Plus -- to fall into the colloquial patter librettists Myler and Mark Harelik toss around freely -- Petty's yodeling ain't yesterday's grits, neither.

Singing into a standing mike with conviction while manfully strumming a guitar, Petty does oh-so-right by such Williams classics "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)," "Jambalaya (on the Bayou)," "I Saw the Light," and "Your Cheatin' Heart." He also does a whiz-bang job on "Lovesick Blues," which Williams didn't write (Irving Mills and Cliff Friend did) but which he performed when given a slot on the Grand Ole Opry, thereby cementing his place in the country music firmament. Throughout this bio-revue, Petty is backed by Stephen G. Anthony, Myk Watford, and Drew Perkins, who stand in for Williams's Drifting Cowboys and play (respectively) bass, guitar, and fiddle with an aplomb that matches their easy acting skills. Bravo for their corn-fed bravura.

Indeed, the attention paid Williams's oeuvre here is marked by a joy in the hillbilly idiom and an outpouring of uncontrived emotion, so much so that the one gaffe in the musical program registers like a fist to the solar plexus. Myler and Harelik land on the crooning of "Hey, Good Lookin'" as the moment to demonstrate how far Williams had descended into alcoholism by his late 20s. (He died at 29.) There's Petty as Williams, loping through the exuberant come-on of a chart-topping ditty -- and then he begins to blank on the words. What was sunny and infectious sours so quickly that the audience only gives the rendition weak applause. (Nor do we get to hear "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Half as Much" -- not even during the extended curtain call, when they might easily have been performed.)

Surely, Myler and Harelik (who worked together on the appealing musical The Immigrant) could have found a better way to sketch Williams's debauched existence than by punching holes through one of the most delightful standards written during the years immediately following World War II. But maybe they couldn't be bothered; they seem perfectly content throughout the piece, which toured widely before reaching Manhattan, to use the short-hand method of stage biography employed by predecessors who've dramatized the lives of celebrated drinkers and druggers. (Actually, Myler found a savvier method of handling the genre in his soon-to-close Love, Janis.) The pair further cheapen their approach in the work's earlier segments by adopting a simplistic, country-folks-shurr-are-cute attitude.

In the truncated Myler-Harelik version, Williams, pushed with a steady hand by stage mom Lilly (Margaret Bowman), is a talented and persistent kid. In one quick lesson, he learns from street singer Tee-Tot (Michael W. Howell) that he should find his own miseries to write about and not appropriate the black man's. That's all young Hiriam, known as Hank, needs to understand before eventually amassing some 125 songs that often started out as ideas scribbled on paper scraps. Wised up, Williams mines his problems with Audrey (Tertia Lynch), the 21-year-old divorcée he marries in a 1944 hurry. It's the writers' suggestion that most of the lovesick blues songs Williams concocts are traceable to his no-talent, ambitious spouse. "She could melt the wax off a Dixie cup at 50 feet," a Drifting Cowboy says about Mrs. W. in one of those aw-pshaw outbursts that are typical of the dialogue.

Petty with Tertia Lynch and cast inanother scene from Hanks Williams: Lost Highway(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
Petty with Tertia Lynch and cast in
another scene from Hanks Williams: Lost Highway
(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
So it goes in minute-long vignettes during which publisher Fred "Pap" Rose (Michael P. Moran) at first can't nail that Grand Ole Opry booking and then does; as the years slip by, Pap tries to wean Williams from his ever-present flask, while Williams and wife battle and divorce. Eventually, Williams dies in the back seat of a car with so many substances in his body he could be a roadside liquor outlet, but the coroner calls it heart failure. The narrative of the show moves so quickly that Myler and Harelik neglect to mention Williams's second marriage to Betty Jean Jones. Among the other things they don't go into deeply are Williams's compromised health (spina bifida?) and Fred Rose's investment in Williams. Nor do they note that, with Roy Acuff, Rose established the still-potent Acuff-Rose publishing house. Williams's songs meant fabulous royalties for Rose and Acuff, and that might have at least be hinted at here.

While several of Williams's complex relationships are overlooked, Myler and Harelik do include in the dramatis personae an unnamed waitress (Juliet Smith). She works a stage-left counter on Beowulf Boritt's colorful, multi-purpose set and is meant to represent the blue collar masses for whom Williams poured out his heart. In the symbol department, this blonde, bubble-gum-chewing gal serves another purpose as well: She stands in for the women with whom Williams tried to find extra-curricular comfort when Audrey was giving him grief. Eventually, the waitress moves center-stage for a wild night with Williams that fizzles when he falls drunkenly asleep. (By the way, she isn't the only one who has to sit quietly while most of the play unfolds to the side of her; Tee-Tot inhabits his stage-right turf with only an occasional opportunity to burst into song.)

In addition to Jason Petty and the musicians, who continually score, the cast keeps things hopping. Margaret Bowman, in a performance that will recall Marjorie Main and Hope Emerson to movie buffs, is tough and funny. The same can be said of Tertia Lynch, Michael P. Moran, and the put-upon Juliet Smith. Michael W. Howell's bass-baritone is an important addition. Costume designer Robert Blackman contributes a few outfits that nicely conjure the work of dresser-to-the-country-stars Nudie; Don Darnutzer handles the lights deftly; and sound designer Randy Hansen and associate sound designer Eric Bechtel come up trumps.

One last note: Forgotten on a list in the lobby of artists who were influenced by Williams are such crossover stars as Frankie Laine, Joni James, and the great Jo Stafford (with her "Jambalaya" cover). Guess they also got lost on the highway.