His sound might have been called country, but Hank Williams was in many ways the original rock star. Blessed with a holy voice and cursed with unholy vices, Williams lived fast and died young at 29 (which is two years past the established rock star sell-by date of 27, but we’ll give him a pass).
Filament Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” captures the soulful essence of the man’s music and makes for a fantastic live concert, even if it sketches out his life and times with just barely enough detail to get by. What the play lacks in gripping dramatic action, it makes up for with its fast and frequent musical numbers.
As Williams, Peter Oyloe brings the entire package: he can sing, he can play, and he can act too, even if he’s rarely given the opportunity to do so. With his trusty band at his side, Oyloe reels off song after song straight to the audience, with all the quiet swagger of a real rock and roller. The band, (and every member deserves mention) consists of Jesse Woelfel on bass, Eric Labanauskas on fiddle, Tim McNulty on slide guitar and Sam Quinn as Jimmy, the band’s guitarist and Williams’ trusty side man. Quinn is truly a delight, bringing an aw shucks glee to the role that should have been annoying but was completely endearing instead. Also noteworthy is Gerald Richardson as Tee-Tot, Williams mentor and the play’s bluesy chorus. This man can sing. That’s really all there is to say.
Whenever the band is not playing, however, the show loses most of its charm and becomes something like a live episode of “Behind The Music.” The fact that Williams’ story is told entirely from the recollections of other people only heightens this unfortunate effect. The script itself, not Filament’s production, is often guilty of ‘showing not telling.” We are told often of Williams’ alcoholism whilst only being shown the occasional flask sip or two. Then all of a sudden, in act two, he’s in full blown “Lost Weekend” mode. It all escalates rather quickly.
Sadly, this kind of lazy storytelling is typical of jukebox musicals, but it is also typical that the pleasures they provide often far outweigh the shortcomings. Such is definitely case with Filament’s wonderful production.