When you hear Joey Folsom sing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as Hank Williams, it’s fairly astonishing. Under the guidance of Musical Director and co-star Sonny Franks, he really carries it off, the phrasing and vocalizations, the mournful notes and chilling reverie of yearning and disconsolation. I’m no fan of Country and Western, but certainly, Hank Williams was a phenomenon that transcended any particular genre, whether it was blues, gospel, or the twangy, yodely notes of hits like “Hey Good Lookin” and “Cold, Cold Heart.” You’d think that stepping into those legendary boots would far be too daunting, but Folsom masters it in Hank Williams : Lost Highway, capturing the charisma and unabashed aching that made Williams so irresistible.
Creators Randal Myler and Mark Harelick begin with Hank’s earliest influences, his Mama Lilly, who took him to church, and bought him his first guitar at the age of eight, and Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a local street singer who taught him to play and sing the blues. As Williams gathers up a band and starts working the circuit, we’re introduced to: the other musicians : Burrhead, Shag, Hoss, Loudmouth, their manager Fred “Pap” Rose and Hank’s wife, Audrey (Mikaela Krantz) no bigger than a minute and cute as a button. Each tells their story in turn, while Tee-Tot (Major Attaway) provides soul-stirring continuity and resonance, testifying to the undeniable disappointment in life and wounding your heart.
Hank’s career gains velocity and acclaim, popularity and punch. Audrey wants to sing but can’t, so she spends weeks apart from him as he tours. The stress and strain of intense success drives Williams to drug and alcohol abuse. The narrative is by no means sugar-coated, we see Williams at his low points, but never a meltdown. We see him succumb to addiction, but never with a needle, which might be for the best. The music is lively, poignant, earnest, infectious and informed by an energy that both quickening and disruptive, in the best sense. It shoulders the emotional burden of the content. The gospel songs don’t feel religious, they express our restless search for answers and grace.
In a brilliant stroke, Harelick and Myler forge a character identified in the program only as “The Waitress.” She serves as vox populi, advancing the plot and sharing an anecdote that exposes Williams at a time in his life when he’s most vulnerable. Though disappointed, her experience doesn’t alienate her from her idol. It just evinces his humanity. There were times when I longed for a bit more character development, though it’s hard to say just what the right mix of biographical detail and music is, when shaping a show like this. You want to be forthright and accurate, but avoid lapsing into the lurid and manipulative. Bearing that in mind, Hank Williams : Lost Highway strives for authenticity while doing justice to the spirit and heart of Williams’ legacy. And it works just fine.
WaterTower Theatre presents Hank Williams : Lost Highway, playing October 11th - November 3rd, 2013. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6262. www.watertowertheatre.org