For a guy who spent most of his mental energy on comic books, “Hillbilly” singer Hank Williams surely knew how write songs that connected with people from all walks of life. The revue Hank Williams: Lost Highway at the Cincinnati Playhouse demonstrates how his songs and singular vocal style remain fresh and immediate more than a half-century after his tragic death at age 29. He released just 30 songs during his lifetime, but 11 of them went to No. 1. You’ll hear about two dozen tunes in this show, including “Honky Tonk Blues,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
Lost Highway traces Williams’ meteoric streak through fame, alcohol and dissolution. There’s more music than sad details and not much investigation of his motives, but there are plenty of chances to hear his ups and downs through his music. Peter Oyloe plays the solemn, lonely singer with remarkable verity, both vocally and physically.
Randal Myler (who co-wrote the show and directs this production) uses several characters to illustrate the singer’s influences and his broad appeal. We first meet Hank when he’s dominated by his mother (feisty Sally Mayes) but learning how to make serious music from a Blues man, “Tee-Tot,” played by the authentic singer, Mississippi Charles Bevel. He sits at stage right from start to finish, performing authentic Blues numbers that frame Hank’s life and counterpoint his music.
At stage left, local professional actress Annie Fitzpatrick plays “The Waitress,” representing Hank’s legion of fans. She sits in a tiny diner, listening to his career via the radio, until one night (probably a fantasy) when he stumbles in after a violent exchange with his band. She’s the stand-in for everyone who loved him and mourned his loss — and found it hard to believe he departed so soon.
Hank’s band, The Drifting Cowboys, played by Steven G. Anthony, Brian Gunter and H. Drew Perkins, are accomplished musicians and fine character actors who bring vitality and charm to moments that are entertaining and real. Their comic number, “Way Downtown,” is a crowd pleaser. In fact, the whole show — on the Shelterhouse stage through the end of the year — will please audiences, whether they’re fans of Williams or just discovering his appeal.
HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse, continues through Dec. 30.