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Posted June 7, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

Review: 'Lost Highway' is an impactful tribute

Robbie Limon, second from right, performs as Hank Williams in Wayside Theatre’s production of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” with, from left, Steve Przybylski, Jody Lee and Jason J. Labrador. — Courtesy photo

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" returns to the stage at Wayside Theatre in Middletown in a moving 2 1/2-hour tribute that brings the famed country music star back to life.

The play begins with the end, as characters remember Williams in the aftermath of his untimely passing at age 29.

First on stage are Elliot Dash, as Williams' mentor Tee-Tot; Pam Pendleton, as Mama Lilly, and Leslie Putnam, as a waitress who listens to Williams sing over the airwaves while she works in a roadside diner.

"He drew a big crowd today," Putnam, as the narrator, says with a wistful smile illustrating that even in death, he makes an impact on his fans.

"Lost Highway," which reminds of many other musical biographical stories in recent years, is more a love letter to the tragic country star than a historical account of his life.

On opening night, as Wayside begins its 51st season, director Warner Crocker welcomed audience members to the historic theater's new season, thanking the more than 700 people who helped raise over $106,000 in 90 days during Wayside's race to pay back last season's debts.

"We wouldn't be here without them," Crocker said, calling the donors golden super heroes.

In "Lost Highway" new faces to the historic stage infuse classic songs like "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Dissatisfied" with unique talent, but tenured actors bring along years of experience that perhaps the show's writers Randal Myler and Mark Harelik's hoped for.

Robbie Limon, who reprises his role from eight years ago, breathes excitement and energy into his interpretation of Williams. He shines in the role that launched his acting career, and in the opening scene he seems to form out of the very shadows of Mama's memories of her lost son.

Pendleton uses vigor and humor in her portrayal of the proud mother who finds joy in talking about her boy, and likewise, Limon's Williams conveys the love he feels for his mother and the possible pain he realizes, even in death, for having hurt her.

As Williams' buddies Jimmy and Hoss, Steve Przybylski and Jody Lee are authentic in their enthusiasm to begin a band with their childhood friend and later in their uncertainty in how to deal with Williams' progressive downward spiral into alcoholism.

The play's tone becomes more harried and prophetic, but Lee and Przybylski provide welcome comic relief between more serious scenes.

Jason J. Labrador, as new band member Leon, is mesmerizing on fiddle and banjo, and David Artz, as Shag, is melodious and adept on the steel guitar.

Jennie Malone's convincing desperation to join her husband's band despite her character Audrey's inability to sing is both humorous and realistic. She's sassy and quick-witted when it comes to dealing with Mama's determination not to let the young woman steal away her son. Later, the audience can identify with her indecision in how to keep her failing marriage intact.

Pap Rose, played by Dennis David, offers a needed sobriety to the mixture of emotions on stage and a sad hint at the direction in which Williams' road might have taken if things had turned out differently.

Costumes by Caleb Blackwell convey the audience to 1950s rural America. Lighting and set design by Wes Calkin make movement between scenes flow easily, from Williams' adolescence when he learned to infuse his music with emotion at stage left to the start of his life on the road in a bumpy, jovial car ride with Mama and the band at center stage.

In dual roles as people in Williams' life and unlikely narrators, Dash and Putnam's near-constant presence onstage embodies the emotional content of the play.

Using a stunning baritone that jumps octaves with ease and skill, Dash mirrors Williams' state of mind, while Putnam, who mostly listens rapturously as Williams' voice keeps her company on the night shift, represents the country star's fan base. No matter what foolish mistakes he makes, his true supporters will remain with him, because life simply is better if Williams is providing the soundtrack.

"Lost Highway" seeks to make new fans of what the script calls Williams' "southern blues," and with instant and persistent toe-tappers like "Jambalaya" and "Honky Tonk Blues," it just might succeed. But if not, the journey still is worth the risk.

"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" continues at Wayside Theatre in Middletown on Saturday and runs through June 30. For tickets and more information, call 869-1776 or visit waysidetheatre.org.

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