Drifting along with the Manatee Players’ Hank Williams: Lost Highway.
By Kay Kipling
The life and career of country music legend Hank Williams should make for a great story. Hardscrabble beginnings, stardom at the Grand Ole Opry, health and addiction issues, turbulent marriage and early death—that’s more than enough material for a show. Hank Williams: Lost Highway, now running at the Manatee Players, just scratches the surface of his ultimately tragic existence, focusing more on the music than a compelling storyline. But at its best it’s appealing enough for longtime Williams fans and may entice newcomers to his music to give it more of a listen after the show ends.
Lost Highway, conceived by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, isn’t meant to be a conventional retelling of Williams’ short life. It consists more of vignettes: of a boyish Hank (Steve McAllister, Hank at every age, also playing the guitar) with his hard-working, loving mother (Laurie Zimmerman); Hank with an African-American waitress (Jaszy McAllister), who gives him his background in the blues; Hank on the road with his friends and fellow musicians, The Drifting Cowboys; and Hank torn between his mother and his chosen partner in life, Miss Audrey (Karen Blankenship), with whom he had an extremely tempestuous relationship.
Many of Williams’ songs are shown to relate pretty directly to his own life, including Honky Tonk Blues, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Mind Your Own Business and Lovesick Blues. And over the course of the evening, McAllister’s vocals come to sound more and more like Williams’ familiar nasal twang, with a yodel and a tinge of heartbreak thrown in. When he and his bandmates, who do all their own playing and singing as well as portraying their characters, perform one number after another before the Act I curtain, it puts you in a pleasantly country frame of mind.
But that curtain comes down abruptly, with no real sense of drama. Overall, the production just sort of ambles along without the strongly emotional moments you’d expect. And the character of Audrey, at least as played here, is used chiefly for comic relief (she’s determined to sing along with Hank, but can’t carry a tune), which lessens the effect on us of Hank’s apparently undying love for her.
So we’re left with all those great Williams tunes, a nice set by Donna Buckalter (consisting of a diner, an old gas station and a front porch) that’s simple but evocative, and some spirited singing by Jaszy McAllister, who may overdo some repetitive gestures in her delivery but does have a nice bluesy voice. One longs for more from the show, which makes its Florida debut here. But Hank understood well that you don’t always get what you want from life.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway continues through Nov. 16; for ticket info call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.