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His Cheatin' Heart 

Lost Highway doesn't flinch from singer's demons

Musical revue plays like Theatrical Outfit's Hank Williams: Lost Highway easily turn from staged concerts to wrestling matches between the songs and the singer. Shows built around the pop idols of yesteryear strive to evoke the sing-along spirit of a "greatest hits" evening, while doing justice to the musician's life. The trouble comes when the biographies, often studded with self-destruction, just won't cooperate.

Fortunately, creators Randal Myler and Mark Harelik bring candor and weight to Lost Highway, along with all the favorites from the Hank Williams songbook. More than just a spirited evening of pickin' and grinnin', Lost Highway unflinchingly faces Williams' earthy beginnings and tragic outcome.

At first, Lost Highway derives predictably from the revue playbook by beginning with Williams' death at 29 and using one of his songs ("Message to My Mother") to flash back to his childhood. But when Williams' musical mentor TeeTot (Eric Moore) imposingly belts "This Is the Way I Do" like an immortal piece of Delta blues, the show reveals an austere power that's unexpected.

Rob Lawhon plays Williams with a youthful swagger that suits his exuberant early days playing honky-tonks. The play cracks plenty of one-liners and sight gags: His mother (Jill Jane Clements) packs the band into a car so crowded, it looks like the opening credits to "The Beverly Hillbillies."

But the humor reveals rough edges of the penniless rural lifestyle, like drinking white lightning in grade school or packing blackjacks before playing tough roadhouses. Lost Highway conjures the authentic era of "hillbilly music," long before, as one character remarks, "Hillbilly became country, and country became a pick-up commercial."

Lost Highway cleverly finds both comedy and drama in songs performed badly. When Williams' wife, Audrey (Courtney Patterson), a would-be singer, tries to sing along with his band the Drifting Cowboys, she begins hilariously off the melody, inspiring dirty looks among the musicians. When Williams' years of substance abuse take their toll in the second act, his disintegration most powerfully emerges in a hostile, stumbling performance of "Hey Good Lookin'."

A comfortable, appealing player, Lawhon nevertheless faces the thankless task of inviting comparison to a music legend. He can't match Williams' nasal yodel, nor does he bring the same urgency to slower tunes like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," which here sounds (not unpleasantly) like a melancholy lullaby. As much as Lawhon's boyish demeanor suits the glory days of the play's first act, it takes him too long to convey Williams' darker drives and intensity.

In the ominous medley "I'm a Run to the City of Refuge," Lawhon finally reveals Williams' cruel, haunted side. The music fades to the background for ugly confrontations: When Williams offers to help his fiddle player (Jimmy DeMartini) get a recording contract in exchange for some alcohol, Lawhon seems like he's not just fighting demons, but becoming one. Rochelle Barker's set, with its looming, cruciform telephone polls, subtly evokes the stakes for Williams' soul.

Without shying away from the cautionary lessons of Williams' life, Lost Highway offers many cheerful musical moments, such as the soaring a capella chorus of "I Saw the Light" and Hank Barbee's slide and steel guitar licks. The backup band (including charismatic bassist John Driskell Hopkins) provides possibly the show's most entertaining number, "Way Downtown," a rollicking piece interspersed with likeably ancient comedy shtick.

Near the end, Lost Highway tries to blame the recording industry for exploiting Williams, but the play doesn't support the idea. Williams' friends and co-workers repeatedly try to rein in his behavior, but can't match his addictive personality. Loneliness emerges as the unifying theme of Williams' music, until it seems that the singer himself loved his own lonesome image more than any other person. You can imagine his autopsy reading "Cause of death: 'Lovesick Blues.'"

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