Lovesick blues boy

Blue Room delivers the songs and the pain in Hank Williams biography

Hank Williams (Loki Miller) learns the blues from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne (Dave Myers).

Hank Williams (Loki Miller) learns the blues from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne (Dave Myers).

photo by matt siracusa

Hank Williams: Lost Highway, now showing at the Blue Room Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through March 10, with a special actor’s benefit show Sunday, March 4, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$15.

Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

It would be difficult to invent tragedy as spectacular as the true life story of Hank Williams. An uneducated, semi-literate street urchin possessed with preternatural talent and charisma rises to the loftiest heights, then plummets down the spiral to an early death. Along the way there’s sex, madness, betrayal, existential struggle and even some Oedipal issues. Hank was more than just a country singer; he’s the hillbilly Hamlet.

It’s fortunate Randal Myler and Mark Harelik recognized the dramatic potential and penned the musical Hank Williams: Lost Highway, because it’s a story that should be told. The importance of Williams’ music and its ongoing influence cannot be understated. Williams is—for this author included—one of the most beloved artists ever.

The story is told well in the Blue Room’s current run of the musical biography. Denver Latimer introduced the play opening night by saying the theater has been developing the production for several years, but was waiting for the right person to come along to play Hank. That person was Loki Miller.

Miller directs the play and stars as Williams. An accomplished actor and musician, Miller more than meets the need for an actor who can also play guitar and sing, but he transcended all expectations. Williams is a complicated character, and Miller managed to capture his many facets, from the mama-and-Jesus-loving rube with big dreams to a tortured, vice-addled superstar in decline.

The story begins with Williams’ death at age 29—road-sick, drunk, drugged and alone in the back seat of a Cadillac—then goes back to the beginning. It plays out through dramatic interludes punctuated with spectacular live musical performances, with Miller backed by Kevin Briggs, Jeffrey Burkhart and Steve Valine as Jimmy (guitar), Hoss (bass) and Shag (pedal steel), respectively. Of special note is the phenomenal pedal steel playing of Valine, which is used in the musical performances and to add atmosphere throughout the production.

The voice of Dave Myers, who plays Tee Tot, a black street musician who tutored a young Hank musically, was similarly used. Myers stayed in the corner of the stage throughout most of the play, moaning old blues and gospel lyrics to amplify the ambiance and color the spoken interplay between characters.

Lisa Marie Hiatt also shined as Audrey, Williams’ proto-Yoko manager/wife. It seemed like it was difficult for her to sing poorly even when the script called for her to do so, and Hiatt delivered Audrey’s sweet and not-so-sweet scenes fantastically.

I’m always amazed at how effectively the Blue Room crew manages to transform the same tiny black box into whatever is necessary to tell the story, and the set of Lost Highway may be my favorite yet. Steps from the Grand Ole Opry stage lead down to a deck that extends practically into the audience, and are flanked by a diner and an old Alabama homestead house. The play is nonlinear, and the set and lighting are effectively used to affect ellipses in setting and time without being confusing.

There are no small roles in Lost Highway, and all of the players handled their responsibilities swimmingly. Natalie Valencia struck a perfect balance of loving and stern as Williams’ mother, Mama Lily; Dave Sorenson was excellent as Fred “Pap” Rose, as was Nikki Sierra as a love-lorn truckstop waitress.

Lost Highway is a fantastic production, and the cast and crew manage to honor the whole of Williams’ life, with no painting over of un-pretty parts. Any criticisms I might have—brief lulls in action and dialogue—could be chalked up to opening-night jitters.

The Blue Room also scored demographically with Lost Highway. It was especially nice to see a number of older folks, some decked out in Western shirts and boots, clap to Williams’ songs alongside 20-something hipsters, proof of the power of Williams’ legacy.