Like Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollack, few recognized the artistic genius of Hiram "Hank" Williams while he was alive. He was only 29 when he died in 1953, on his way to a gig in Canton, Ohio. Williams was a hell-raiser and a lover, an introvert with a keen sense of humor and his share of vices.
Randy Noojin, the star of New Stage Theatre's "Hank Williams: Lost Highway," is perfectly cast in the role of Williams in a comedy that is punctuated by periods of darkness.
Noojin brings the passion of a fan and the artistry of a stellar thespian to the role.
"My parents are from Alabama," Noojin says, "and my father used to wake us up every Sunday morning playing Hank Williams records real loud."
Noojin says he even yodeled like Hank. "I yodeled when I was a kid to get away from bullies. ... I ended up befriending guys who wanted to beat me up because I had this unusual talent."
Noojin was ecstatic when he learned in 2001 that there was a stage play dedicated to the man who woke him up on Sunday mornings.
Peppy Biddy, the show's director, says the play has already been rewarding for all that he learned in research. "It's like putting together a puzzle," he says, citing as an example Williams' relationship with Tee-Tot, played by local actor and musician Maurice Turner. Tee-Tot was a black gentleman who became Williams' musical mentor, urging the youngster to sing what he knew.
As interesting as Williams' life is, there is no way to get around it: Music is what makes this show.
"The thing with these guys is that they're genuine musicians," Biddy says of Noojin and the actors who make up The Drifting Cowboys—Bruce Lang, Tony Medlin, Steve Trisman and Russ Weaver.
If you're like plenty of young people, your knowledge about country music stops at the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice," so a production about Hank Williams is not at the top of your must-see list. But even if you don't care about Williams, this show will draw you in and won't let go until the finale.
The songs, most of them penned by Williams, are as essential to the story as the dialogue. Still, the numbers in "Hank Williams" don't feel cheesy the way musicals can. As the cast sings show-stoppers like "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and Baptist standards like "The Blood Done Signed My Name" and "I Saw the Light," you might realize you've long been a Hank Williams fan yourself.
On his journey from being a street musician sitting by Tee-Tot, to the pinnacle of his short career—joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1949—Hank Williams left an indelible fingerprint on the music industry. His struggles with alcoholism (Noojin, by the way, plays a very convincing drunk), his apparent addiction to pain killers and the deep emotional grief Williams rarely spoke of outside his music made him an elusive personality few understood.
"Don't worry 'bout nothin', 'cause ain't nothin' gone be all right no way," Williams deadpans in the play. Williams was cynical toward life, but never stopped embracing it.
"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" is at New Stage Theater from May 29 through June 10. Tickets are $22. Discounts available for seniors and students. Curtains are 7:30 p.m. except Sundays at 2 p.m. Call 601-948-3531 for more info.