Infinity Theatre Company opened its fifth season this month with "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," another professional production solidifying the company's reputation as the summer destination of fans seeking the best in local musical theater.
Infinity's co-producing artistic directors, Anna Roberts Ostroff and Alan Ostroff, again bring an affordable, Broadway-caliber musical to Anna's hometown of Annapolis.
Earlier seasons offered esteemed jukebox shows — "The Story of the Andrews Sisters" and "Always … Patsy Cline." Here, the Ostroffs move to an even more compelling drama, told through 24 tunes from singer-songwriter Hank Williams.
This musical biography of the "Hillbilly Shakespeare" traces his rise to Grand Ole Opry stardom, finding bandmates and a girl to love along the way, before alcoholism leads to self-destruction at age 29.
Brilliant director Randy Myler, co-author of this musical biography, joins Jason Petty, whom he chose to play Hank Williams at the Little Shubert Theatre off-Broadway production that earned Petty the 2003 Obie Award.
Petty is again Myler's choice as "likely the best Hank Williams … we will ever see" — a fact verified in this production.
Uncluttered by plot line, the Hank Williams story moves naturally and honestly from its tragic core through Williams' music, rising from church choir singer to his Grand Ole Opry debut, where he finds country music stardom.
The production re-creates Williams' ability to draw audiences into soulful "hillbilly" songs that express universal emotions.
The lanky Petty has a strong resemblance to Williams and also channels much of his singing style. His voice quality will certainly elicit approval from Williams aficionados.
Williams' charisma comes through loud and clear as channeled by Petty, who delivers an honest portrayal that approaches a musical docudrama. Petty expresses Williams' vitality, loneliness and disenchantment in songs including "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Lovesick Blues," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Lost Highway," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
Myler can be credited with other inspired casting decisions, starting with his choice of Rachel Womble to play Hank's spoiled, tone-deaf wife, Audrey, who is comically unaware of limitations that prohibit her own country music stardom. Womble has a degree in vocal performance and has starred as Julie Jordan in "Carousel." Her portrayal of Audrey projects raw affection toward Williams that contributes to the overall honesty of this production.
Myler's casting expertise is also displayed in his choice of Mississippi Charles Bevel to reprise his role as Williams' musical mentor Tee-Tot, inspiring Hank by touching his soul with wailing blues.
Bevel instantly draws in audiences with his soulful rendition of "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," and his Tee-Tot becomes a fixed presence through the performance, seated at stage right as an engaged listener, reacting to events, sometimes in vocal harmony with Petty.
Infinity's production is musically defined by additional cast members and instrumentalists, including music director Stephen Anthony, Drew Perkins and Russ Wever, who play members of Hank's band, The Drifting Cowboys. These fine musicians are also skilled character actors who bring needed fun to the show, especially in their comic number "Way Downtown."
New York actor Michael R. Douglas plays Hank's patient, empathetic business manager, Pap, with an understated quality that contributes to the production's honesty.
Actress Becky Barta, another New York addition, creates a multidimensional portrait of Hank's mother, feisty in business battles and in dealings with Audrey, guiding her son at his choir musical start, proud of Hank's success and ultimately a grieving mother.
Infinity acting intern Samantha Whitbeck plays what could be termed a "universal Hank Williams adoring fan." This diner waitress is always present at stage left, expressing her love of the singing heard on her radio. Another Infinity acting intern, Zack Steele, brings youthful intensity to the role of Jimmy.
Technical support is first-rate, with kudos to returning lighting designer Jimmy Lawlor, who recently worked on 2014 Tony Award-winning musical "Hedwig & the Angry Inch" and has illuminated five of Infinity's previous shows.
"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" continues at the CTA Theatre Complex, 1661 Bay Head Road, Annapolis, through June 29. For ticket information and reservations, go to infinitytheatrecompany.com.