Originally Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2013, 10:35 am
Last Updated: Jan. 17, 2013, 8:43 am

Circa takes nostalgic trip down country road

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Jonathan Scott Roth stars as country legend Hank Williams in Circa '21's 'Hank Williams: Lost Highway.'

The list of popular music stars who died young is depressingly long -- including Buddy Holly (22), Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse (all 27), Bix Beiderbecke (28), Patsy Cline (30), Andy Gibb (30), Charlie Parker (35), Bob Marley (36), John Lennon (40), Freddie Mercury (41) and Elvis Presley (42).

Country music fans know the legendary Hank Williams sadly is smack in the middle of that heavenly choir, a pioneer who fused folk, hillbilly and blues into a sturdy style all his own. But an addiction to alcohol and painkillers led to Williams' early death from heart failure at 29 on Jan. 1, 1953, as he was being driven to a show in Canton, Ohio.

A heartbreaking bio-musical revue in the tradition of "A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline" (last here in fall 2010), Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse brings back "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" and winningly shows us the tremendous promise and peril of this Alabama native who became the father of country music.

As with the jukebox of Patsy hits, the tribute to Hank last was unveiled by Circa in 2002, and is an eye-opener for neophyte country fans like me who don't know much of the history, importance and song catalogs of these iconic musicians.

"Lost Highway" is no whitewash of Williams' legacy -- we get the classic hits, the wisdom, the warts and all. Hank is no angel; like many artists, he's a talented but troubled, tormented soul, moralistic but flaunting flaws like drink and jealousy. The combustible combination of darkness and light merge to make him great and unique.

At the show's outset, we learn of Williams' death and hear the anguished, impassioned wail of his African-American blues mentor, Tee-Tot (Tony D. Owens Jr.), which ironically was short for "teetotaler." As if from beyond the grave, a steady, strong and dignified Hank (the consistently mesmerizing Jonathan Scott Roth) serenades and comforts his grieving mother (Rachelle Walljasper).

This deep emotion courses through the veins of this tragic tale, even as it often is considerably lightened by some of Hank's more carefree hits, like "Honky Tonk Blues," "I Can't Help It," "Jambalaya," "Move It On Over" and "Hey, Good Lookin'." The more than 20 Williams songs immeasurably are enhanced by having them done by a live band (rather than cold, pre-recorded tracks).

Mr. Roth has a rich, resonant singing voice, with a frequent, floating falsetto yodel he uses with flair to stamp Hank's influential style. His is a commanding, reassuring presence, and we ache for him as he bickers with wife Audrey (Nina Schreckengost), is paranoid about alleged infidelity, and battles with the bottle and loneliness.

While Mr. Roth often sizzles with his tight band -- the wonderfully earnest A.J. Haut on lead guitar, blazing Canaan Cox on fiddle, and solid Jody Alan Lee on bass -- a clear highlight on this highway is the gentle, slow solo waltz of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in the second act.

Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar (with the magical, mournful cry of Russ Weaver's steel guitar), Mr. Roth summons a simple beauty beneath a backdrop of stars. It also makes a stark contrast to the rollicking previous number, 'Way Downtown," which showcases the Drifting Cowboys on their own, interspersed with several bad jokes.

"Lost Highway" reunites three of the actors from this past fall's "Smokey Joe's Cafe" -- Mr. Roth, Ms. Schrekengost and Sara Elizabeth King, who here plays a wide-eyed, lovesick waitress who pines for Hank and stands in for his worldwide fan base.

While the "Cafe" was more a straightforward parade of songs, "Lost Highway" adds more story and drama. Ms. Schrekengost also is excellent as the dazzling blonde singer who steals Hank's heart, but has a tough time hitting the right notes with him -- literally and figuratively. Tom Walljasper is his dependable self in Pap, Williams' music publisher who also sometimes disagreed with him.

As Rufus Payne (Tee-Tot), who taught Hank how to play, how to appreciate the blues, and incorporate your own hard times into song lyrics, Mr. Owens is affecting as the show's moral conscience and soulful inspiration for Hank's music. His powerful, heartfelt voice comes from a place so deep and profound (as Pap says) you couldn't put a name to it, but you can't help responding to it. It's like that with Mr. Roth as well.

Since this is musical theater, the journey of this "Lost Highway" does end happily, as Hank and the band re-emerge at the end in matching white, angelic outfits (emblazoned with musical notes) and a couple upbeat numbers. As Audrey joins in, they're finally in perfect harmony and happy together.

After the cast bows, the company invites us to joyfully sing along to the gospel-infused "I Saw the Light." An irresistible dessert to top off a terrifically satisfying musical banquet.

If you go

-- What: "Hank Williams: Lost Highway"
-- When: Through March 9; Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:45 p.m. (buffet dinner served from 6 to 7 p.m.); Sundays at 5:45 p.m. (buffet dinner served from 4 to 5 p.m.); and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m. (plated lunch served 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.).
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $48.07 for the evening productions and $42.32 for the matinees, with reduced prices for students, seniors and groups of 12 or more also available. Call (309) 786-7733, ext. 2, or visit circa21.com.