Bio musicals, much like their jukebox counterparts, walk a very fine line. Either swift and engaging (think Jersey Boys or Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story) or plodding and tedious (Coco and Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson). They also rely on their leads to hit that sweet spot between unique performance and straightforward impersonation. Joey Folsom, donning the iconic white Stetson in WaterTower Theatre’s Hank Williams: Lost Highway, channels Williams’ familiar yodel while sparking his performance with inner turmoil and infectious outward charm.
Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s Hank Williams is by no means an epic feat of playwriting, but it doesn’t have to be. Williams, an Alabama hillbilly who in the 1940s and 1950s became one of country music’s most influential singer/songwriters, wrestled with alcoholism and addiction before dying in the backseat of his Cadillac at age 29 on the way to a gig. The show plays out with more than a whiff of a Behind the Music special, as other characters narrate the singer’s brief but turbulent life in between a cavalcade of hit songs.
Rising up from dirt-poor street musician to Grand Ole Opry star and radio mainstay, Williams was ill-prepared to handle his massive fame. He took it out on his wife (a feisty Mikaela Krantz), bandmates (an exceptionally talented quartet led by musical director Sonny Franks), agent (the grounded Stan Graner), and, most of all, himself. Watching Folsom careen from carefree young scamp to jubilant performer to belligerent has-been provides the narrative pull necessary to make Hank Williams more than just a shallow timeline set to music.
The tunes, of course, are the show’s meat. Nearly 30 of Williams’ hits, including “Move It On Over,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Lovesick Blues,” and “Hey Good Lookin’,” are presented in mostly concert format. This allows Folsom, stringbean-skinny in Michael Robinson’s period suits, to vary between tightly coiled self-destructor in the personal scenes and charismatic showman when “onstage.”
When Folsom pairs with Major Attaway, making his WaterTower debut as the street performer who instilled in Williams his love of the blues, the duets are steeped in emotion so raw they nearly ache. When he teams up with his band, known as the Drifting Cowboys, it’s impossible not to tap a toe or two during the rollicking jam sessions. When Krantz joins Folsom for her two musical numbers, good luck not busting a seam laughing.
Michael Serrecchia mentions in his director’s note that he approached the show as a quilt, piecing the biographical vignettes together to create a cohesive whole. To hammer the point home, quilts dangle from the ceiling and walls in Clare DeVries’ multilevel set, which is scattered with retro advertisements and a skeletal frame to suggest the Grand Ole Opry. Lighting, by Leann Burns, relies heavily on bright spotlights that on opening night were too often uncoordinated to provide much punch.
If Folsom performed his songs in the dark, we’d still be alright. Still, take advantage of the visual elements and catch this remarkable performance.