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Hank Williams: Lost Highway

 

By Randal Myler & Mark HarelikHank Banner Square Hank Williams: Lost Highway

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.

Hank Alone and Alone 400x266 Hank Williams: Lost Highway

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.

Audrey Giving the Boys the Evil Eye 400x238 Hank Williams: Lost Highway

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.”

Hank and Tee Tot 400x276 Hank Williams: Lost Highway

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.

Hank and Cuss Box 400x336 Hank Williams: Lost Highway

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!”

Hank and Audrey 400x246 Hank Williams: Lost Highway

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.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: June 9, 2012

Jeff Recommended

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

PROGRAM BACK2 Hank Williams: Lost Highway