‘Hank Williams: Lost Highway’ a smash hit for Florida Rep

‘Hank Williams: Lost Highway’ a smash hit for Florida Rep


Sam Sherwood is a believable and likeable Hank Williams: tall and lanky and amiable. COURTESY / JOE DAFELDECKER, FLORIDA REPERTORY THEATRE

Sam Sherwood is a believable and likable Hank Williams: tall and lanky and amiable. COURTESY / JOE DAFELDECKER, FLORIDA REPERTORY THEATRE

Hank Williams packed a lot of living into his short life.

His 29 years were filled with both physical and emotional pain; the music that came out of that pain is bittersweet.

People who heard it related to it on a deep, visceral level — the loneliness, the heartache. Hank had a way of writing — and singing lyrics that were both plain and poetic; some called him the Hillbilly Shakespeare.

“Hank Williams: Lost Highway” at Florida Repertory Theatre (through April 14) is a retelling of that country music pioneer’s life and career. It’s not your typical jukebox musical — the songs make sense where they’re placed. They’re expertly performed by musicians onstage, as they’re either creating a song, recording it or performing it.

The music’s a natural, organic part of the show.

Jason Parrish, who directed last season’s “Ring of Fire” musical about Johnny Cash, has outdone himself, raising the bar for excellence even higher. Everything in this musical works together, creating a spectacular evening of theater.

William’s band of musicians perform as the Drifting Cowboys.
William’s band of musicians perform as the Drifting Cowboys. Like “Evita,” “Lost Highway” begins with the star’s untimely death. It’s announced on the radio. (In a clever bit of casting, that’s the voice of John Davis relaying the news. You know his voice from local NPR station WGCU.)

Hank’s mother, Mama Lily (a cantankerous Carolyn Messina), mourns his death, as does the entire country.

Messina proves the adage that there are no small parts, because she makes you sit up and take notice every time she’s onstage; her Mama Lily is filled with grit and definitely not a woman to trifle with. She garners lots of laughs with her deadpan, no-nonsense delivery.

Noah Canales, as Tee-Tot, a bluesman in town, opens both acts with a song. His bluesy, soulful voice is other-worldly, and is alone worth the price of admission.

As a youngster, this is the man Hank follows and learns music from. Hank then goes on and makes it his own, adding some yodeling to his plaintive sound.

Sam Sherwood is a believable and likeable Hank: tall and lanky and amiable, he sounds like him too when he sings.

Even if you think you don’t know any Hank Williams songs, you probably do. He’s famous for “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Move it On Over,” “Lovesick Blues” and many others.


His band of musicians — David Finch, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Vince Federici and Matt Cusack (who’s also the show’s music director) perform with him as the Drifting Cowboys. And while they are all outstanding musicians, they never upstage Hank.

Sherwood’s real-life wife, Margaret Dudasik, plays Hank’s wife, Audrey. Their relationship’s tumultuous, and sparks fly with Mama Lily when she comes into his life and battles for his attention.

Audrey wants to be a singing star just like her husband. Her only problem: she can’t carry a tune and sings as flat as she is beautiful. Or, as one of the musicians says, “Miss Audrey, she couldn’t sing worth a damn. She had to sneak up on a song before she could sing it, and even then it usually got away from her.” (In today’s world of AutoTune, she would probably be a big star.)

Things start moving for Hank when he comes to the attention of music producer Fred Rose (Joel Newsome). He hears them play “Honky Tonk Blues” in a bar.

“His roughness never bothered me,” he says. “That’s where the music was born.”

But Hank self-destructs: alcohol, pills, womanizing.

(Allison Ann Kelly plays a waitress who listens to Hank’s music on the radio and longs to escape her small town and small life. She runs away with him.)

The musical is somewhat a memory play, opening with Hank’s death. When not acting in a scene, he’s usually observing, like a ghost.

Scenic designer Bert Scott has created a spacious set that is multiple things: Tee-Tot’s front porch, a cafe, Hank’s front porch, his church, the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride.

There are signs galore: neon signs, license plates, advertising, gas signs, an on-the-air sign. The set’s naked wood and windows. It’s atmospheric, combined with Tyler M. Perry’s lighting. The sound balance (Katie Lowe, sound designer) is excellent and the costumes (Kim Griffin) are pitch-perfect, especially Hank’s outfits and hats, which make him look so Hank-like.

This unpretentious musical wins you over, song by song, scene by scene, each one better than the previous one. It’s country and western music when it was a gumbo of blues, folk, country and gospel. “Lost Highway” is musical theater at its very best. Like Hank’s music, it’s authentic and true, a balm for the heart. ¦

In the KNOW

‘Hank Williams: Lost Highway’

· When: through April 14

· Where: Florida Repertory Theatre, Historic Arcade Theatre, 2268 Bay Street, downtown Fort Myers

· Cost: $69, $63

· Information: 239-332-4488 or www.floridarep.org