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Matthew Brumlow channels Hank Williams in ‘Lost Highway’

“Hank Williams: Lost Highway “ stars Matt Brumlow as title character. | Phoby Johnny Knight

“Hank Williams: Lost Highway “ stars Matt Brumlow as the title character. | Photo by Johnny Knight

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‘HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY’

Highly recommended

When: Through Oct. 6

Where: American Blues
Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln

Tickets : $29-$39

Info: (773) 404-7336; americanbluestheater.com

Run time: 2 hours and
20 minutes with one
intermission

The music world is full artists’ stories whose careers took off like a comet, brought them fame and fortune at a very young age, sent them into a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and broken relationships, and then
left them to flare out
completely.

In a real sense, Hank Williams, the Alabama-born singer-songwriter whose name is synonomous with country music, set the model for such careers. When he died of a heart attack in 1953 he was just 29, and had burned as many bridges as he’d built during his short but eventful life. “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” the sharp, witty, deftly shaped musical biography now in a sensational production by American Blues Theater, charts that classic arc of self-destruction. And dang if it ain’t the most entertainin’ show since “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, cast with an eagle eye by director Damon Kiely (as well as ace musical director Malcolm Ruhl, since most of those on stage can not only act up a storm, but sing, play an instrument or both) the show captures Williams’ life and demons. Along the way, it weaves nearly 30 songs into the narrative, from hymns, to blues, to honkytonk, to pure Grand Ole’ Opry country.

At the center of it all is Matthew Brumlow’s stellar performance in the title role. Not only does the naturally trim actor appear to have whittled himself down to Williams’ near-skeletal form. But with his gaunt face, twangy voice, fine guitar-playing,
volatile outbursts and shy way of pulling crumpled wads of paper bearing song lyrics out of his pockets, he often feels more authentic than the man you can see in vintage YouTube clips.

Brumlow is surrounded by a supremely talented ensemble, starting with his domineering, church organ-playing mama, Lily (spikey Suzanne Petri), who says of her son: “He is so skinny he could change clothes in the barrel of a shotgun.” And crucially there is his loyal but badly abused band that includes: Jimmy (Michael Mahler on guitar and vocals), Hoss (Austin Cook on bass and vocals), Leon (Greg Hirte, the ace fiddler who nails “Sally Goodin”, and Shag (John Foley, on console steel guitar and spoons).

John Crowley plays Tee-Tot, the black street performer who taught the youthful Williams his
most basic lessons in the blues, and Jim Leaming
is Williams’ devoted
producer).

Adding fireworks is Audrey (sparkling Laura Coover, as the determined beauty and off-key wannabe star with whom Williams had a stormy marriage). And in scenes that bring the house down with laughter there is a roadside waitress played brilliantly by Dana Black.

From “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to “Jambalaya” and on, this is a show about heartbreak that never fails to lift your spirits.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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