The toe-tapping and hand-clapping that accompanied the opening of American Blues Theater's remount of last year's hit show "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" testified to just how good a time this show is.
But I'll wager no one who saw this jukebox musical about the quick rise and sudden fall of an American music icon had a better time than the folks onstage.
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"Hank Williams: Lost Highway"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. (773) 404-7336 or americanbluestheater.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 28. Also 2 p.m. Sept. 10 and 17. No 7:30 p.m. performances on those days.
Running time: About two hours, 20 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $29, $39
Parking: Metered street parking.
Rating: For teens and older
That's especially true of pitch-perfect Matthew Brumlow, reprising the role of Williams, the Alabama-born songwriter and mountaineer crooner who transformed country music with classics like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Your Cheatin' Heart." It's also true of the superb actor-musicians co-starring as Williams' backing band The Drifting Cowboys: bassist Austin Cook; console steel guitar player John Foley (co-writer of "Pump Boys and Dinettes"); violinist Greg Hirte and guitarist Michael Mahler.
This quintet is so attuned to each other, their camaraderie is so genuine, their playing so joyful and their banter so effortless (to the point it almost seems improvised), it feels like they've been together for years.
Indeed, their playing is one of the great joys of director Damon Kiely's straightforward, unsentimental, yet compassionate production, which benefits as before from Malcolm Ruhl's careful, canny music direction.
Such are the benefits of reuniting the cast from the company's 2013 revival of the Randal Myler-Mark Harelik bio-musical about the country music pioneer, who in 1953 died of a heart attack (likely brought on by years of substance abuse) on his way to a gig. He was 29.
Williams' story is familiar: A talented young musician beset by personal demons realizes his dreams and tops the music charts. Undone by alcohol, he self destructs, alienates his wife and bandmates and spirals downward to an early death. The show, which includes several dozen Williams' tunes, is folksy, affectionate and often funny. But Myler and Harelik don't sugarcoat this tale of flawed genius, which opens with the announcement of the singer's death.
It then flashes back to the beginning, with Mama Lilly (Suzanne Petri) accompanying young Hank's church performances and chauffeuring him and his boyhood pals to their early roadhouse gigs.
Before long, Williams attracts the attention of music publisher/producer Fred Rose (a forgiving James Leaming), who recognizes the young man's talent and helps guide his career.
"You couldn't put a name to it," says Fred of the singer's bluesy twang punctuated by a lonesome yodel, "but you couldn't help but respect it."
We're also introduced to Williams' wife, the strong-willed, tone-deaf Audrey (a feisty, funny Cora Vander Brock) and to his musical mentor, Tee-Tot, an African-American blues singer beautifully sung and soulfully played by Byron Glenn Willis. It's Tee-Tot who introduces young Hank to the blues and who encourages him to find his own voice.
"If you want to sing about hard times, find some of your own," says Tee-Tot.
Rounding out the ensemble is Dana Black, who brings an everyday dignity and a quiet longing to her role as a waitress at a highway diner.
Ultimately, the show rests on the rail-thin but entirely capable shoulders of Brumlow, who often stands with one shoulder hitched up, as if Williams is bracing for something or preparing to ward off an inevitable blow. A kind of pensive resignation underscores Brumlow's performance, in which this genial actor masterfully expresses the ingenuity, arrogance, obstinance and insecurity of that animated, troubled country music pioneer.