“Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” which just opened at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., is a rockin’ piece of Chicago theater. It is basically the life story of Williams, who is considered one of the greatest country musicians of all time. But in addition to actors portraying characters on stage, the audience is treated to a great band and great voices. The majority of the actors all play instruments … and most of them sing, too — quite well, indeed.
Williams wrote scores of songs, and his recordings were often hits. Among his most well-known tunes are “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Move It On Over,” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
He lived from 1923 until 1953.
When I caught the first preview performance on July 25, the show offered me a rare chance to hear first-rate country music played with style and high energy.
But … who was Hank Williams, and why should you care?
“He changed the world of country music,” said James Leaming, who is one of the founders of American Blues Theater — the company staging the show — and an actor in this production, portraying Williams’s long-time manager, Fred Rose, known as “Pap.”
In a brief chat outside the theater after the Friday night performance, Leaming remembered Williams as “This young guy who only lived to be 29 years old. He brought blues into country music.”
A decade before the untimely deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Williams rose from singing church hymns in rural Alabama to the heights of stardom at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, only to die before his 30th birthday, a victim of drinking and drugs.
Suzanne Petri is an accomplished actor and singer who earlier this summer appeared at the Metropolitan Room in New York City. In her current Chicago show, Petri plays Hank Williams’s mother, Mama Lilly, a woman who was a powerful guiding force early in her son’s career. (For her role, Petri learned to play the pump organ, for a scene in which she and her son sing a church hymn — a genre of music influential throughout Williams’s career.)
Asked for her thoughts on Williams, Petri said, “He changed country music. And everything that came after him was informed by him. So much of his music was based on the heart and the soul, and that was his hillbilly roots.”
Reflecting on Williams’ gifts, Petri said, “He had so much talent. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs. He was filled with inspiration.”
“Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is in previews from July 25-31. The show’s regular run is Aug. 1-31. At americanbluestheater.com, ticket prices, today, are listed at $19. Greenhouse Theater Center, again, is at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. The box office can be reached at (773)404-7336.
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