Lost in translation
Simi Valley production provides great music but little back story on country music legend Hank Williams
By Kit Stolz 01/08/2009
Before Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon and countless other rock stars drank and drugged themselves to death at a young age, country music legend Hank Williams died in the back seat of his Cadillac, officially of “heart failure,” but with alcohol and morphine in his blood. He was 29. It was 1953, before rock ’n’ roll was born. So we can be certain that whatever killed Williams, it had nothing to do with rock music or the excesses of the ’60s.
What went wrong? How could such a great and greatly loved American artist fall so fast? Why did he throw it all away? It’s a great question for a play, and a great excuse to rehear some of Williams greatest hits. Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams, currently on stage at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, looks good and sounds good, but the narrative doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say about the star.
It’s a shame, in part because the drama fits Simi Valley so well. At one point in the play, a yearning waitress (portrayed with intensity by red-haired Corban Shepherd) waits for something to happen at a lonely diner she says is just “700 yards from the L & M railroad.” She speaks of hearing the train rumble by, much as a train rumbled by the theater during intermission. Our county is still country enough to appreciate a good show about Hank Williams.
Unfortunately, approximately two minutes spent reading Wikipedia will tell you more about the man than the show, which runs more than two hours long. The show hints that he had back problems, for instance, but glosses over the fact that he was born with spina bifida — a birth defect of the spine — which might explain in part his use of painkillers. Actor Tom Mesmer turns out to be a surprisingly good musician, looks and sounds like the tall, rangy, angular Williams, and even gets his yodel right — a crucial test for an actor portraying the country star. Yet although it was possible to imagine Mesmer as Williams when he was singing, the songwriter’s inspiration, and even his nature, remained almost as much a mystery after the show as before.
The show includes more than 20 songs. Many are familiar (“Move It on Over,” “Jambayala”), but some of the choices clearly are intended to reveal the unheard Williams, such as his hell-raising “Setting the Woods on Fire,” his ruminative “Lost Highway” and the spiritual “I Saw the Light.”
Both his hits and his lesser-known gems make for satisfying entertainment, and some of the credit has to go to the real band playing behind the ersatz Williams. For this show, some very talented musicians gamely took on roles and dialogue, with more success than not. The lap steel guitar (by M.B. McClellan) and violin (by Peter Blackwelder) added enormously to the solid backing of Al Paulson on bass and Gabe Gonzales on guitar, mandolin and pseudo-dobro.
Yet much of Williams’ life goes unmentioned, including the fact that he actually created an alter ego, “Luke the Drifter,” in order to record certain religious and melodramatic songs, including his great “Cold, Cold Heart.” Nor do we get much insight into the sources of Williams’ songwriting, although the drama does show him as a barefoot boy taking singing and writing lessons from a blues singer on the street, played by Keith Borden. Though nearly every performer in the show was mic’d and amplified, and sometimes the production struggled with technical challenges, one had the sense that Borden could have filled the large hall with just the power of his rich, warm voice.
The music, familiar and unfamiliar, still has much to offer, but the writing seems both uncertain and a little timid. It barely hints at the despair that Williams expressed in songs such as “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” and portrays his frustrations only as an inarticulate acting-out of an unspoken pain. Williams sneaks nips of whiskey, becomes irrationally paranoid about his untalented wife sleeping with his long-suffering bandmates, and fires off a gun once or twice, yet we get not a clue as to how such a seemingly petty, unthinking fellow could write lyrics with the insight of “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me.” (What a fool I was to go and break the trust she gave/and see her love to turn into sympathy/It’s the one regret I carry with me to my grave/Oh, they’ll never ever take her love from me...) That Hank Williams, whoever he was, was not to be found on the Simi Valley stage.
Performances through Feb. 8. Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. 583-7900.