BWW Reviews: Riverside Center's HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY Brings Legend to Life in Story and Song
Like these other legends, Williams star fell while he was still a young man. He was only 29 when he died of heart failure, most likely brought on by the poisons in his system from the alcohol and other substances he abused.
His legacy lives on in the songs he wrote and performed from the 1940s until his tragic death in 1953. Fans of the soulful, country crooner and the songs from his records can find their way to Riverside Center in Fredericksburg for HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY to relive his music for a few hours.
If you lived through the era or grew up listening to the music of your parents, the songs will be like hearing from old friends. The tune-stack includes "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Honky Tonk Blues," "Jambalaya," "Hey, Good Lookin'," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY is really a play with music by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik. The premise is simple: Hank Williams, his family and friends have come back to share the rags to riches (to rags) story and perform more than 20 signature tunes.
The ensemble cast serves as storytellers, key figures, back-up singers and musical sidemen as the short life of the scrappy hillbilly from Alabama goes from Hiram King Williams to Hank, star of the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry.
We meet the gentleman who taught Hank how to play and sing the blues. Hank's mother, Lilly, shares her side of the story, from raising her son single-handedly (the father left) and driving the band to their first performances. "Miss Audrey," as Hank called his wife, struggled to keep Hank away from liquor and ready to perform, while raising their son, Hank, Jr.
The centerpiece performance of the production is the uncanny incarnation of Hank Williams by Robbie Limon. Limon has the wiry frame and onstage charisma that evokes the late singer. While not merely an impersonation, Limon sings with same soulful wail and is able to connect the words and music to the listener. Mr. Limon's years as the lead singer of his own band, and his multiple performances with another Hank Williams tribute show have given him plenty experience to make his performance seem effortless.
In another standout performance, Elliot Dash is "Tee-Tot," the street performer who taught Williams how to sing
the blues and play the guitar. Mr. Dash has a commanding presence and a big voice that fills the theatre. His renditions of "This is the Way I Do," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and "Blood Done Sign My Name" soar with deep felt pathos and passion.
I was lucky enough to see Limon and Dash perform these same roles in one of the last productions at Wayside Theatre in Middletown a few seasons ago. Their performances here have grown in richness and nuance.
The supporting cast is made up of Constance Shofi (Mama Lily), Jackie Fields (Miss Audrey), Bob Payne ("Pap" Rose), and Emily Perkins (the Waitress). The show's musicians also serve as the sidemen and extended family of Williams from his humble beginnings to the Opry Stage. The upright bass, electric guitar, and fiddle are played, respectively, by Eric Sandstrom ("Hoss"), Jimmy Cherry ("Burrhead"), Luke Gray ("Loudmouth"), and Brian "Frenchy" LeBlanc ("Shag").
Director David Hensley Caldwell keeps the action moving, due to the simple setting (scenic coordination by Stefannie Smith, Geoff McPherson, Matthew Westcott) and the lighting design by Joseph Wallen. The period costumes by Gaye Law have the flavor of the 1940s-50s and the authentic honky-tonk flavor. (Apparently Robbie Limon also has a ready wardrobe of Williams' costume pieces.)
Under the musical direction Caldwell and Limon, the musicians nail the sounds of the hillbilly music made famous at barn dances, the Louisiana Hayride and on country radio stations in the early days of the genre.
For fans of classic country music and the legendary Hank Williams, a trip down LOST HIGHWAY will be a welcome diversion.
HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY continues through September 14, 2014 at Riverside Center, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. For information or tickets, go to Riverside Center HERE or call (540) 370-4300.
PHOTO CREDIT: Riverside Center