July 22 2009 12:00 AM

Iconic songs, superb musicianship drive ’Lost Highway’

It should be surprising that the tale of the meteoric rise and tragic plunge of country music superstar Hank Williams would make for a crowd-pleasing piece of musical theater. After all, “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” pulls no punches. Williams’ drug and alcohol abuse, insecurity, narcissism and womanizing are given plenty of attention. Yet this bad behavior is balanced well by the power of his beautiful music, emphasizing the fact that while his life was short, his impact on American music was indelible.

Director John Lepard assembled a cast of skilled local musicians and actors to play Williams and his band of Drifting Cowboys in this production, part of Lansing Community College’s “Summer Stage Under the Stars” series. Because the music was performed live, authenticity required that the musicians know the genre well, and this cast did. No surprise, since most had experience in local roots and alt-country bands and/or have worked at Elderly Instruments, a local institution for stringed instrument buyers with a national reputation.

The cast included Derek Smith (Williams), Joe Bakaitis (Shag) and Chris Hamilton (Jimmy), who all fit both criteria above. Fiddle player Nate Bliton (Leon) is a recent MSU composition graduate, while  Drew Howard (Hoss) has 30  years of performing experience, primarily as a musician. While Howard and Hamilton had some acting under their belts, the rest cut their teeth on this pro- duction.

Smith proved to be a capable actor. He imbued Williams with the com-plexity to make the audience laugh, as he set his Mama (Chris Purchis) and his girlfriend — later his wife —Audrey (Corrina Van Hamlin) at each other’s throats, then gasping in disgust as Williams tries to manipulate his band mate-turned-babysitter into giving him alcohol.

Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s script is well-crafted as it alternates between scenes of Williams’ turbulent personal life and his triumphant professional one. In the hands of a lesser musician, the musical performances alone would not balance the ugliness of Williams’ behavior. Smith has the pipes to bring gravitas to the loss of a talent like Williams. One standout example came when Williams is learning the blues from his mentor, Tee-Tot (Sineh Wurie). Williams finds his voice, as he follows Tee-Tot’s lead, until the two finish the piece in a delicate, harmonic crescendo that enraptured the audience.

Tee-Tot served as a mentor for Williams and also a musical prophet for the tragedy to come. Unlike the musicians in the band, Wurie is primarily an actor. He more than matched the skills of the band, delivering powerful a capella pieces with the soul of an experienced bluesman.

One disappointing aspect of the play is that more LCC Theatre students or alumni weren’t cast. Loading the cast with experienced musicians was necessary, but it would have been gratifying to see more LCC students or alumni in supporting roles.

The other disappointment is that LCC summer shows run five consecutive nights, from Wednesday to Sunday, which means it’s already over. However, the show requires a minimal set, and it could be produced in any good-sized auditorium. While being on the road may have killed Williams, the cast of “Lost Highway” might consider taking this show on tour. Like Williams’ life, its time on the stage was too short.