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STAGE REVIEW : A Cunningly Seductive ‘Highway’

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

You could do a lot worse than spend an evening with “Lost Highway,” the Randal Myler-Mark Harelik concertplay based on the short and tragic life of country legend Hank Williams. The show that opened Friday on the Old Globe Theatre’s Festival Stage has been around, yes. But here it feels right at home: out in the open, under the stars.

Perhaps it’s because “Lost Highway” first flourished out in the open and under the stars--as part of the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts’ Theaterfest in Solvang 10 years ago. And perhaps it’s because Williams the man seemed to yearn for a liberation he could only find in his lyrics, music, alcohol, drugs and death.

Subsequent performances--at the Denver Center Theatre Company (1986) and L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum (1989)--were indoors, longer and more problematic. And while the show at the Globe still takes too many detours and crams too much in, the lid is off at least.

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And the show has matured if it hasn’t much changed. It sketches in for us the poverty and religious fervor in which Williams grew up. It provides enough of his Mama Lilly’s cluckings to define her contradictory role as mother and bully, and it outlines the rise and fall of his marriage to the ambitious Audrey Mae Shappard (an aptly shrill and superficial Sharon Schlarth).

Myler, who also directs, and Harelik, who plays Hank Williams (duties they’ve shared in every incarnation of the show), have retained Richard L. Hay’s all-purpose platform set. It has been reconstructed here by Bill Curley and is abetted by Peter Maradudin’s lights. They’ve also kept Andrew V. Yelusich’s costumes--cleverly designed, in Harelik’s case, to make him look even skinnier than he is. And they have pulled together their best company yet.

The verb should be pooled , since eight of the 10 actors were featured in previous editions. Mama Lilly is full of vinegar as played by Kathy Brady, first seen in the role in Solvang; the salty waitress with whom Williams has a late fling is Stephanie Dunnam, who did it at the Taper, and Richard McKenzie, also in the Taper production, invests Williams’ manager, Pap, with a tolerant impatience.

The acting is on target, especially Harelik’s. He had always been magnetic, but had stopped short of being haunting. His performance has taken on depth and gauntness, dominated by his uncanny version of the Williams singing style.

Myler and Harelik establish the playful but powerful bond between Williams and the members of his band: the loyal Hoss (Mick Regan), upright Jimmy “Burrhead” (William Mesnick) and sweet Leon “Loudmouth” (Dan Wheetman, the show’s musical co-director and a mean fiddle player). But they also leave us the mystery that was Williams: a wiry, taciturn, emotional powder keg, whose release was his music, whose language was his lyrics, and whose boozing kept him from exploding.

Nothing in “Lost Highway” is overwritten or overly sentimental, but the show is too long and the text should go before the music does. The music’s the heart of the piece. It’s what you walk out humming: “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Jambalaya,” “Move It on Over,” “Hey, Good Lookin,’ ” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” the ineffable “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” And that’s fewer than half the songs.

On the other hand, do we need so much of Audrey? Or the antics with the waitress? Above all, do we need all those multiple endings?

In three peripatetic years, Williams’ career soared as his life collapsed. He died at 29, alone in the back seat of his car. His heart stopped as he was being driven to a singing date in Ohio.

The romance of that lonely death is hard to resist, and Myler and Harelik begin and end the show with it. But they have two or three endings too many--a 10-year-old problem they seem unable or unwilling to attack. This lingering on diffuses the punch. A quicker, darker break, much like Williams’ real-life death, would be braver and as shocking and tough.

What must not be cut are the bluesy shadow lamentations of a mentor/street singer named Tee-Tot (Ron Taylor, with a voice like spun sugar and as big as the sky) and his sidekick Willy (Kevin Moore). They are the Greek chorus, the potent counterpoints to the action who, like watchful angels of death, pull in the darkness.

Even with its problems unresolved, “Lost Highway” at the Globe is a cunningly seductive show. With a few cuts of the knife, who knows what it might become.

(A footnote: On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the role of Hank Williams will be played by alternate Michael Bryan French.)

“Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams,” Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 4. $18.50-$30. Call 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Mark Harelik: Hank Williams

Ron Taylor: Tee-Tot

Kevin Moore: Willy

Stephanie Dunnam: Waitress

Mick Regan: Hoss

William Mesnick: Jimmy “Burrhead”

Dan Wheetman: Leon “Loudmouth”

Kathy Brady: Mama Lilly

Richard McKenzie: Pap

Sharon Schlarth: Audrey

Director Randal Myler. Playwrights Randal Myler, Mark Harelik. Original scenic design Richard L. Hay. Associate scenic designer Bill Curley. Lights Peter Maradudin. Costumes Andrew V. Yelusich. Sound Tony Tait. Musical direction Dan Wheetman, Mark Harelik. Stage manager Peter Van Dyke. Assistant stage manager Melissa Joy Morris.


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