Strong Performances and Exciting Music Carry Hank Williams: Lost Highway

The set-up: Hank Williams: Lost Highway chronicles the rise and fall of one of country music's icons, as Hank Williams travels from rural Alabama to record-selling success and stardom at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

The execution: The drama unfolds on an interesting set by prolific designer Jodi Brobowsky (whose work currently can be seen in two other Houston productions as well), with a simple central stage framed on one side by a rural Alabama shanty and on the other the counter to a bar. The African-American mentor to Hank, Rufus Payne (nick-named Tee-Tot) occupies one side and a waitress stands behind the counter in the other. The play opens slowly as Hank's mother, played with power and restraint by Margaret Bowman, muses after his death on his fringed white performance jacket, then in flashbacks we see Hank meeting with Tee-Tot and the band being formed.

Ben Hope plays Hank and has the guitar skills, voice, and looks to capture the performer's charisma and lady-killing appeal. Wayne Dehart plays Tee-Tot in a low-key, effective and moving performance that comes close to stealing the show, and his singing reveals the love of music that inspired Hank. After the necessary background information, the show springs to theatrical life as the microphone is grabbed and the songs come bursting forth. And the magic amps up with classics such as "Honky Tonk Blues" and even more with "I Can't Help It if I'm Still in Love with You." The onset of Hank's problem with alcohol emerges and grows, but the Grand Ole Opry nonetheless finally books him, and the overwhelming success of his debut adds rocket fuel to his career.

The career is guided by Pap, a music publisher who became Hank's agent, and Ralph Ehntholt plays him with dignity and authority. The Drifting Cowboys Band is comprised of Brian Gunter on guitar, who also does well as an actor in his conflicts with Hank, Drew Perkins on fiddle and Stephen G. Anthony on bass, all accomplished musicians that do Hank proud. The distaff side is Katie Barton as Hank's wife Aubrey and Sara Gaston as the waitress, and both are quite good.

The second act, as Hank edges further into addiction, is necessarily less light-hearted, but writers Randal Myler (who also directed) and Mark Harelik adroitly find a way to restore the triumphant note of musical genius even here.

The verdict: Strong performances, Ben Hope's charisma as Hank Williams, an exciting band, and the country songs you know and love all merge seamlessly together to create a most enjoyable entertainment. See it - you'll love it.

Through September 4, Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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Jim Tommaney