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Playing with emotions

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Robbie Limon plays musician Hank Williams in “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” at Wayside Theatre in Middletown. — Josette Keelor/Daily

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Robbie Limon, right, rehearses a scene of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” with Pam Pendleton as Williams’ mother Lillie. — Josette Keelor/Daily

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Jody Lee, left, plays Hoss with Jennie Malone as Audrey Williams during a recent rehearsal of "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" at Wayside Theatre in Middletown. — Josette Keelor/Daily

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Robbie Limon and Pam Pendleton rehearse a scene of "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" at Wayside Theatre in Middletown. — Josette Keelor/Daily

'Hank Willliams' returns to stage at Wayside

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

The songs of country legend Hank Williams will return to the stage at Wayside Theatre next month in Randal Myler and Mark Harelik's "Hank Williams: Lost Highway."

Featuring songs like "Hey Good Lookin," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "You're Cheatin' Heart," the musical also returns Robbie Limon to the starring role that launched his acting career.

"We did this about eight years ago. It was my first theater experience," Limon said on Wednesday, the first night of rehearsals.

The play has everything, he said, describing a tidal wave of emotions. "Somber, happy, sad, mad. It's all across the board."

Portraying the role again was not too difficult for him, he said. He played Williams just last year in another theater's performance. Still, it will be a different experience from the one eight years ago in Middletown, he said.

"Hank Williams is a legend. He is Americana. ... I know the role, so it's easier, and I love the show," Limon said. "I love the music."

He and other cast members said that an understanding of Williams' life or work is not needed for the enjoyment of the show. Indeed, Williams' work is so pervasive in today's music industry, that it's still relevant.

"Norah Jones sings 'Cold, Cold Heart,'" Limon said. "People won't even know the name Hank Williams, but they'll know the song."

Also relevant is the realization of a musician's reach in the wake or his or her death, cast members said.

"We've had that happen at least twice over the past few years," Elliot Dash said, as Dennis Donald referenced Amy Winehouse.

"But will their music live on?" Limon wondered.

Director Warner Crocker remembered a reviewer once saying "It's one of those dead musician shows that we do so well."

"Lost Highway" is the story of Williams' rise to fame, and successive transition into legend.

"It's always exciting and terrifying when a theater company revisits a show," Crocker said. "What makes a revisitation [fun] ... we're all eight years older ... and we're bringing eight years of experiences to this," he said. Adding new actors into the mix, he said, "It becomes something brand new."

It's like falling in love with a brand new song on the radio, he said. "That newness is because of these people."

Dash plays Tee Tot, "the Alabama blues singer who influenced Hank early on," he said.

"And that's really apparent in the show," Dash said.

David Artz plays "Shag," the band's steel guitar player, whose sound, Limon said, was the "most important part of the music."

According to Crocker, Artz's steel guitar playing has become an audience favorite at Wayside.

"It's easy to become wrapped up in the production, because you feel like you're almost there," Artz said. When a musician zones into the role, he said, "it's like you're there in the moment."

The "script is kind of like one long song," Limon said. "The more you do it, the more you get used to it."

It's a good thing too, he said, because the cast has only two weeks to rehearse, one week shy of the norm.

As Crocker explained, "it's a cost-cutting measure."

"But it'll be ready," said Pam Pendleton, who plays Williams' mother Lillie, a strong but controlling character.

In the beginning, she was the one who booked the bands' performances, Pendleton said.

Jennie Malone, as Williams' wife Audrey, "tries to sing with Williams in the bar." But she thinks she sings better than she does, Malone said.

Not all of the characters are entirely true to life, though.

As Hoss, Jody Lee is an amalgamation of all of Williams' bass players through the years. He's Williams' best friend and sticks with him through thick and thin, Lee said.

Leslie Putnam also plays a collection of people wrapped into one -- the waitress, an embodiment of all of Williams' fans, she said.

"I'm the only character where he has more impact on my life than I do on his," said Putnam, an intern at Wayside.

It's the sort of impact that anyone can experience, said music director Steve Przybylski.

"Country touches something universal in these songs," he said.

For Crocker, the story offers a message to the fans of musical icons who died before their time.

"We have to cherish these people while we have them," he said. Celebrate their talents, he said, "'Cause life is fleeting."

"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" will open at Wayside Theatre, in Middletown on June 2 at 6:30 p.m. and run through June 30. Performances will be on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees will be on June 10, 17 and 24. For more information, call 869-1776.

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