After 13 years, organizers have definitely learned to put on a production stacked with excellent talent both on the stage and behind the scenes. Watching the Neil Simon Festival’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” is a fun little evening of theatre that reminded me that this theatre company has mastered the art of telling a story in the more intimate setting of the Heritage Center Theater.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised with how enthralled I was by one of their productions. I was all the way through half the play before I realized there had not been one scene change. The simple set (Alyson King, set designer) that made use of stationary vignettes works perfectly to tell this story without having to distract the audience with awkward transitions. It is a simple stage that is designed to frame the intense and burning music and legend of Hank Williams.
Since the Hank Williams story can be a little generational I was really unsure what to expect from this production. Turns out, it was actually quite wonderful, with toe tapping and soul stirring music sung by Christopher Whiteside as Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys band.
Brandon Grayson as Hoss, Sean Militscher as Leon and Jordan Sanders as Jimmy shared the stage for most of the play as they followed Hank through his life as childhood friends and then later as band members. The blend of their voices was really a good fit. Sanders especially stood out as a true musician. It was easy to see he knew his way around a guitar and the vocals in this play.
The story of a hillbilly/bluesy/country star, who like many other musicians and stars had a short but blazing career in the spotlight, is also told in a way that drew me right into the church, bar rooms and Grand Ole Opry where Hank Williams, his Mom, his wife, and the Drifting Cowboys lived out this story.
On stage, “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” begins with the death of Hank Williams and the narrative of his mother, Mama Lily (Kirsten Sham) revealing her perspective of her son and his rise to fame. Sham as Mama Lily was one of my favorite parts of this play. Her tough love, no nonsense portrayal of a mother who may have tried to control her son too much, but loved him unconditionally, felt absolutely authentic.
Madison Ford as Miss Audrey Williams and the waitress also brought strong female characters to this play. Both of these characters along with the manager Pap Rose (Dean Jones) acted as narrators throughout the play. Written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, the narrative was beautifully worded and written and so during those moments when Hank’s music was not giving the audience a mini concert, the story was engaging and lyrical.
Director Peter Sham did an amazing job of weaving all the elements of this play into a seamless and enjoyable and tragic story.
The Neil Simon Festival is almost over. But there are a few more days of plays. Don’t let this year pass without finding out what makes this festival a hidden gem of Southern Utah’s theatre season.