A Lost and Troubled Soul

L to R: Noah Berry, Andy Harvey, Daniel Thompson, Karen Pappas, Kimberly Braun, Michael Perrie, Jr., Millicent Hunnicutt, Evan Raines, Horace Smith, and Matt Smolko star in “Hank Williams: Lost Highway”

He was a musical genius troubled by demons.  He was the first megastar of country music.  And he left this world far too soon.  He was Hank Williams and you can watch his story in Hank Williams:  Lost Highway currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

On very rare occasions I actually attend a show purely as a patron.  This was meant to be one of those times, but after seeing this show I felt obligated to put fingers to keyboard to share the gloriousness of this production.

Simply put, this is the finest show I’ve seen mounted at Maples Repertory since I first discovered this theatre.  It’s brilliantly directed.  It’s stellarly acted and sung.  Randal Myler and Mark Harelik conjured a pretty intriguing way of sharing Williams’ story.  It’s told in the vignette style, showing events from the life of Williams and using a nice touch of a pair of characters silently listening to Williams’ music on the radio.  They are people involved in Hank’s life, but they also serve as his id and the fans of Williams, respectively.  Williams’ numbers are skillfully placed as there’s no set up for each particular song, yet each song feels as if it was deliberately placed in its slot for a specific reason.

Todd Davison provided a spectacular piece of direction for this production.  This is a tricky show to direct as it does not tell a complete and connected story.  As such, each vignette is a mini-play in and of itself with its own build, climax, and resolution.  But there still has to be a unifying x factor to tie the vignettes together and Davison has that factor firmly in the palm of his hand as the transitions felt seamless.  He staged the show very effectively though some sightlines might be obscured from your view if you’re sitting at the farthest edges of the theatre.  His coaching of his actors is beyond reproach.  As my friend who joined me said, “There isn’t a flat tire in the lot.”  The acting is pitch perfect and the singing is angelic.

The supporting characters carry a heavy load in this show as they not only help to tell Williams’ story, but also have to play their own instruments.  Justin P. Cowan’s musical supervision is sure and certain with the cast nailing the interpretations of Williams’ songs to the floor.  Evan Raines provides some fine fiddling while Daniel Thompson sizzles on harmonica and, I think, a mandolin.  Amazing acting performances are supplied by Karen Pappas as Williams’ somewhat dominating mother, Mama Lilly.  Kimberly Braun skillfully sings badly as Williams’ wife, Audrey, whose ambitions far exceed her talent.  Andy Harvey brings a quiet leadership as Williams’ manager, Fred Rose.  Matt Smolko and Noah Berry shine as Jimmy and Hoss, friends and bandmates of Williams.  Berry especially impresses as the loyal friend who sticks by Williams until his demons become too heavy for him to support.  Millicent Hunnicutt does sterling work as a waitress who gets a one-night fling with Williams and also being a spiritual representation of his fans.  Horace Smith dominates as Tee-Tot, a street singer who inspires Williams’ career and serves as his emotional anchor and id as he appears to sing during Williams’ times of troubles to remind him of why he sings.  Smith has a beautiful, deep baritone that is Heaven sent and transports you to the heights and depths of emotion.

This show ultimately lives and dies by the performer playing Hank Williams and this show not only lives, but thrives, thanks to the talents of Michael Perrie, Jr.  If Perrie doesn’t get a Broadway World nomination for Best Actor in a Musical, it’s going to be a crime because he pulls off something truly amazing with the role.

Perrie simply IS Hank Williams.  Perrie perfectly duplicates his speaking and singing voice right down to the yodeling vibrato falsetto Williams often used in his songs.  Perrie is so much fun to watch due to his animation and attention to detail, finding little bits of business that enhance action and doesn’t pull attention away from the primary moment.  His body language was incredible as he well communicates Williams’ back issues from a botched spina bifida surgery with his grunts, grimaces, and twists.  Perrie’s drunken staggering and slurred speech in Williams’ darker moments is natural and realistic.  His song interpretation and emoting of said songs is so powerful that when he started crying during “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, I wanted to cry along with him.

Charles Johnson has designed a simple set of a barn, farmhouse front, and steps to be all of the scenes of the show.  Dominic DeSalvio’s lights really enhance the show, especially with his use of intimate spotlights to highlight the more emotional moments of the production.  Eliot Curtis’ props helped to flesh out the world of this show while Pete Nasir’s sound work was pluperfect.  Jack A. Smith’s costumes take you back to the late 40s/early 50s with the simple dresses of the women, the suspenders and dress clothes for the men, and, of course, Williams’ trademark white suit and Stetson hat.

A show like this serves to remind me of why I got into theatre and it deserves to be seen and appreciated.  You don’t even have to be a fan of country music or even know anything about Hank Williams to enjoy the show because I’m certainly not and I truly didn’t.  If you love great acting and music, you will love this show.  You’ve still got 2 chances to see this remarkable production, so give it a try.  You won’t regret it.

Hank Williams:  Lost Highway runs at Maples Repertory Theatre through August 7.  Final performances are tonight at 7:30 pm and tomorrow at 2pm. Tickets cost $33 for the Main Floor and $26 for the balcony and can be obtained at the Box Office or by visiting www.maplesrep.com or calling 660-385-2924. Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Photo by Kelly Lewis

“A Steady Rain” is an Emotional Storm

How far would you go to protect your best friend?  Would you lie for him?  Would you cover for him?  Would you betray him?  These are the themes explored in Keith Huff’s heavy drama A Steady Rain to be presented at the Omaha Community Playhouse on November 9 as part of their Alternative Programming Series.

Huff’s script is one of the most inventive pieces of drama I’ve come across.  It’s designed as a duologue with its two actors sometimes talking to the audience and sometimes to each other.  It’s also one of the mightiest pieces of drama I have ever seen.  Huff starts this story in a pretty rough spot and proceeds to drag it into darker and bleaker places using the metaphor of rain that gets heavier and harder as the tribulations pile on the two characters.

Christina Rohling’s direction is pluperfect.  This show has a large number of beats and Ms Rohling fully understands each and every one intimately.  She has mined this show and discovered a treasure trove of emotion and storytelling to share with the audience through the 2 dynamite performances she has shaped with her two actors.

Out of the many characters Nick Zadina has created for the Omaha public, I truly believe his portrayal of Denny eclipses them all.  Zadina has all of Denny’s complexities firmly in the palm of his hand and presents them in a piece of acting majesty.  When the play begins, Zadina’s Denny appears to be a jokey, lighthearted police officer who is helping his best friend and partner, Joey, beat the bottle.  A noble act, to be sure, but Denny is not a good man.  Yes, he does love his family and friend, but he is abusive, corrupt, a philanderer, and arrogant.

Zadina’s mastery of the beats is jaw dropping as his delivery just drips nuance from moment to moment.  Zadina remains engaged in the performance for the duration and some of his best moments occur when he isn’t speaking and is simply reacting to the things Joey says.  Zadina paints a masterpiece of a man on top of the world who slowly devolves into a shadow of his former self due to 2 tragic events.

Aaron Sailors is equally up to the challenge as Denny’s partner, Joey.  When the play begins, Joey is at rock bottom due to alcohol addiction.  Thanks to Denny “adopting” him, he’s been able to overcome the addiction and begin building a better life for himself.  Sailors brings a fierce loyalty to Joey which is rather surprising considering that Denny roughed up Joey quite a bit as a child.  But he has remained staunchly loyal to Denny.

At first, Joey seems a bit similar to Denny as both seem slightly racist and are frustrated with their inability to get promoted to detectives.  After attending a race seminar, Joey proves he was always a better man than Denny.  Sailors gives Joey an inherent decency which is sometimes misguided as he covers Denny’s more sordid doings, but he also proves himself a better father and companion to Denny’s wife and children than Denny himself.

What I found most intriguing about the show was that, whether by design or coincidence, Zadina and Sailors bear a very strong resemblance to each other.  This aids the story as it shows how remarkably similar they are and makes the parallel roads they travel more marked when Joey rises as Denny falls.  I wish this could be a full scale production as this show is truly something special.  Do not miss out on your chance to see this production as it will be a highlight of the season.

A Steady Rain plays at the Omaha Playhouse for one night on November 9.  Showtime is at 7:30pm and admission is free.  This show contains extremely strong language and mature subject matter and is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.