By Randal Myler & Mark Harelik
Music & Lyrics by Hank Williams, Sr.
Directed by Julie Ritchey & Omen Sade
Produced by Filament Theatre Ensemble
At the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago
Hillbilly music comes alive as Peter Oyloe, in a tour de force performance, channels Hank Williams through his short but tuneful life
There is a gem of a musical showing at the Athenaeum Theatre – Hank Williams: Lost Highway. This is a bio-musical about Hank Williams, Sr. (1923-1953) the first super star Country & Western (or Hillbilly music as they like to call it) singer/songwriter. Randall Myler and Mark Harelik have written a truthful biography of the Alabama boy wonder singer/songwriter who had a radio show at age 14 and he toured about the South performing with his band, the Drifting Cowboys from 1937 through 1952. He had 11 #1 hit songs from 1946-53.
Since Hank’s story is centered on his music, the work covers his life interspersed with 26 songs. We meet Hank’s mother, Mama Lilly (Danon Dastugue) who both encouraged him to sing and managed and drove her teen performer about the South as he toured the “barn-dance and honky-tonk”circuit.
We see that the young Hank learned singing and song writing from an African-American itinerant Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne (Gerald Richardson) , a street performer who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for meals. It was Tee-Tot who taught Williams that he must feel the emotions in a song – thus Williams infused blues into his Hillbilly style that hinted of Jimmie Rodgers, Moon Mullican, Johnnie Ray and Roy Acuff. Hank Williams made country music truly into “white man’s blues.”
Filament Theatre Ensemble’s production is a fun filled fast paced that both captures the life and times of Williams and deftly presents Country & Western music in a toe-tapping musical treat.
The show hinges on Peter Oyloe who plays Hank Williams. Oyloe doesn’t disappoint. He give an amazingly truthful tour de force performance. Peter Oyloe demonstrates his vocal range as he channels Hank Willimas style – twang and yodel included. His strong voice contains all the angst and heartfelt emotion that Williams’ songs contained. From the early gospel song – ‘Thank God,'” we hear a powerful voice at work. As Tee-Tot infuses Hank with the blues, Peter Oyloe digs down to reach Hank’s melancholy. Oyloe sings Hank’s tunes in a smooth warble that contains truth as it exudes charisma and warmth. The simple down-home melodies were richly sung in Williams’ style devoid of imitation by Oyloe. And, together with the band, the Drifting Cowboys, gave a musical treat of the first order. With Jesse Woelfel on stand-up bass, Sam Quinn on rhythm guitar with Eric Labanauskas on fiddle with Tim McNulty on the pedal steel guitar, this band created a fabulous hillbilly sound. The band also had their moments as they bounced to the funny tune “Way Downtown.” You’d be hard pressed to hear a finer country band – these guys wale!
As Hank’s life produced success as a singer/songwriter, we hear Oyloe nail tunes like “Honky Tonk Blues,” and “Jambalaya'” while we learn that Hank lived in excruciating pain from spina bifida. Hank drank loads to numb the pain. Peter Oyloe uses his acting chops to honestly capture the personal demeans that haunted Williams. We see Hank’s nasty side fueled by drink, pain and his rocky marriage. Peter Oyloe moves from charming, personable entertainer,at home on stage, to a nasty broken drunk who is difficult to live with. There is a scene in act two that finds Oyloe on his knees singing an emotionally draining solo of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that almost brought tears to my eyes! In that moment, Oyloe emulates Williams’ heartaches.
This country songfest also contains marvelous renditions of Williams’ hits such as “Move It On Over, ” ‘Mind Your Own Business, “Hey, Good Lookin,” and “Your Cheatin Heart.” But , my favorite Hank Williams’ tune, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ -in the full accompanied version brought the house down with wild cheers. When the cast sang the gospel tune “I Saw the Light, ” the cheering , hand-clapping audience was on their feet expressing their joy! “Praise the Lord!”
Kudos to Directors Julie Ritchey and Omen Sade for mounting such a free-flowing, well-staged production. They nimbly blended Williams’ story with his songbook that plays like a crowd-pleasing hillbilly hootenanny. For a mere $22, Filament Theatre Ensemble offers a first-class musical and dramatic treat. Hank Williams lovers and those who love classic country music will enjoy this show. Peter Oyloe gives his finest all-around performance to date as he authentically plays Hank Williaams, Sr. Hopefully, musical directors around Chicago will see Peter Oyloe’s performance realizing that he is a major talent worthy of leading man roles.
Don’t miss this show- it is, indeed, the gem of the summer. Who said that there is not much worth seeing in Chicago this summer? Hank Williams: Lost Highway is that “must see” show. This show begs to be re-mounted after its initial run concludes on July 8, 2012. I’m sure the folks at Filament Theatre Ensemble would be open to offers.
Date Reviewed: June 9, 2012
For more info checkout the Hank Williams: Lost Highway page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, IL, www.filamenttheatre.org, call 773-935-6875, tickets $22 ($19 for students), Thursday thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through July 15, 2012
Listen to my interview with Peter Oyloe; http://www.theatreinchicago.com/talk/interior.php?podshowID=373