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'Hank Williams: Lost Highway' in Previews in Chicago

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Jul 26, 2014 10:46 AM EDT

With Hank Williams: Lost Highway now in previews at Chicago's Greenhouse Theater Center, legendary country musician Hank Williams is among the latest cultural icons to receive the jukebox-musical treatment.

Though Williams lived only to the age of 29 and died, as Wikipedia puts it, of "heart failure exacerbated by pills and alcohol" in 1953, he wrote hundreds of songs, including 11 number one singles, and became one of the foundational figures of everything we know today as country music. Songs like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Move It On Over" cemented his place in the firmament of American music for, it seems, all time.

Suzanne Petri, who plays Hank Williams's mother "Mama Lilly" and learned to play the pump organ for a church hymn scene, put it simply: "He changed country music. And everything that came after him was informed by him."

The show follows Hank Williams's rise from humble beginnings to record deals and triumphs on the Grand Ole Opry, and finally to his sad early self-destruction. The score includes more than 20 of his hits – the three noted above plus "Jambalaya" and many more.

Hank Williams: Lost Highway staged by American Blues Theater is scheduled to open August 1 and run till the end of the month.

Written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik and directed by Damon Kiely, with musical direction by Malcolm Ruhl, this story of the writer of "Honky Tonkin'" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" stars Matt Brumlow as the great singer-songwriter. Brumlow reflected on the two sides of Williams's art and personality in an interview:

"It seems Hank always felt a bit like a backslider, which is why he wrote so many hymns and had such a desperate need to sing those songs in addition to his broken-heart or honky-tonk songs. The last thing you would expect to hear in a back room honky-tonk somewhere is a group of people singing a hymn; Hank somehow managed to make that happen."

The show is making things happen too, per the reviews, which are calling it a "sensational production," a "wildly entertaining piece of storytelling," "a big fat hit," and – to get a little more down to earth (literally) – "foot-tapping fun."

American Blues Theater has received over 131 Joseph Jefferson Awards and nominations and over 20 Black Theatre Alliance Awards for its productions over the years. Visit the company's show page for ticket information.

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TagsHank Williams, jukebox musical, Musical, musical theater, Chicago, American Blues Theater