Lovesick Blues

Cookin' with talent, two musicals turn up the heat under heartache

Funny how two shows about feeling bad turn out to be the feel-good musicals of the year so far. They're all about heartache and despair and what it's like when you're so lonesome you could cry. And by doggies, if you don't walk out of the things at the end of the night humming the tunes and grinning with a big ol' case of the giddies.

That's because in Dallas Theater Center's fine production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway and Contemporary Theatre of Dallas'immensely likable A...My Name Is Alice, the singing and acting come straight from--and go right to--the heart. Nobody hits a false note (or a flat one), and there are a couple of moments in both shows where emotions run deep and voices slide to places so sweet that the especially softhearted may be reduced to audible sobs. The rest just have to choke it back. Nobody goes away completely unmoved.

Not that these shows are all-around perfect. The slick work by the lively actor/musicians in the big-budget touring production of Hank Williams, particularly Van Zeiler in the title role, elevates it above its cliché-ridden mass-market "jukebox musical" format. A..My Name Is Alice, a musical revue first staged Off-Broadway in 1984, suffers from antique jokes about Reagan-era feminism, but the five supremely talented women in the cast, notably comic whirlwind Marisa Diotalevi, find ingenious ways to play to the stronger points in the material. And boy--or rather, girl--can this cast sing up a storm, too.

Contemporary Theatre's A...My Name is Alice offers loads of punch lines.
Contemporary Theatre's A...My Name is Alice offers loads of punch lines.

Hank Williams is all about the tunes. They dig in with the whoop-and-holler joy of Grand Ole Opry stars of yesteryear and also play their own instruments: guitars, mandolin, fiddle, steel guitar, bass, harmonica and a set of silver spoons. As the members of Williams' band the Drifting Cowboys, H. Drew Perkins, Stephen G. Anthony, Myk Watford and Russ Weaver keep it light and funny when they're pickin' and grinnin' and disappear into the shadows when the mood grows somber toward the end.

Between songs--and we get all of Williams' most memorable hits in just over two hours--the musicians and other characters step out to speak directly to the audience. Through them come the bare-bones facts, from Williams' birth to poor parents in Alabama, to his rise to stardom on the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry radio shows in the late 1940s, a rocky marriage, then his descent into drugs and alcohol and his sudden death at age 29 in 1953. An old blues master named Tee-Tot (played by the remarkable Mississippi Charles Bevel) and a Hank Williams fan called The Waitress (Patricia Dalen) bookend the stage to serve as a Southern-fried Greek chorus. "You wanna sing about hard times," the bluesman tells the young Hank, "find some o' your own."

Hard times became a Williams specialty. The ugly clashes between the two most important women in his life were enough to drive the man to drink, according to this script. Margaret Bowman is tough as whang-leather as the singer's mother, Mama Lilly. Regan Southard drawls just raht as nagging first wife Audrey, a hot little pistol described by one of the sidemen as being able to "melt the wax off a Dixie cup at 50 feet."

When Williams steps up to intro a song at the mike of the Opry or, in his breakdown years, stumbles through a gig at some rundown beer hall, the theater audience is part of the show. That device lends a concert-like approach to the staging, aided by the set design by Vicki M. Smith that evokes the red-brick architecture of the Opry's old Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Hank Williams owned a voice that could bend notes into a high yodel and then dip down into a seductive baritone. Handsome Zeiler, who starred as Buddy Holly in another bio-show and could probably play Elvis if he wanted to, doesn't try for imitation physically or vocally. He's not as bone-thin as Williams, nor as nasal. But it doesn't matter. When he sings, he is Hank Williams. That's how beautifully he inhabits him in the arc from shy country boy in the church choir to dissipated star begging a friend for one more bottle of whiskey.

The production arrives here starring most of the cast, including Zeiler, from the successful run three years ago at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater. The creative force behind it, writer-director Randal Myler, also co-wrote (with Bevel) the revue It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues (staged nicely at WaterTower not long ago) and most recently created Love, Janis, based on the letters and songs of Janis Joplin.

Script-wise, the Hank Williams biography is handled by Myler and co-writer Mark Harelik as an E! True Hollywood Story with tunes. The narrative gets a little clunky in spots and fritters away to mostly music in the second act, which is just fine. But all the elements of classic tragedy are there: triumph over adversity, sudden success, fresh conflict, fatal flaws and a final flameout.

Some have said that Hank Williams was his era's Kurt Cobain, a complex young troubadour who wrote intensely personal poetry about the universal fear of being alone. Williams set his words to music that combined country licks with Southern "race music." In the show, his most poignant tune, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," is stripped down to a quiet, slow-tempo solo, which helps connect listener to exquisite lyrics: Did you ever see a robin weep/When leaves begin to die/That means he's lost the will to live/I'm so lonesome I could cry. No wonder they called Williams the "hillbilly Shakespeare."

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