Hank Williams Live 1952

Note:  I originally saw this show at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia in 2009 — You can see it on the following upcoming dates and venues:
Huron Country Playhouse  – Saturday, October 13 at 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Drayton Festival Theatre – Friday, October 19 at 8:00pm
King’s Wharf Theatre – Saturday, October 20 at 2:00pm & 8:00pm

Joe Matheson as Hank Williams
Joe Matheson as Hank Williams

Created and performed by Joe Matheson
Music and lyrics by Hank Williams
Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia
September 1 – 5, 2009
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Honky Tonkin’ with Hank Williams

If you’re a fan of Hank Williams, you must go to Victoria Playhouse Petrolia this week. And if you’re a fan of Joe Matheson, who plays Hank Williams, you should also go to VPP.

I count myself in the latter group. I have become an admirer of Joe’s work. He’s a talented actor who captured the audience a couple of years ago at London’s Grand Theatre in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. Matheson and his wife Louise Pitre gave brilliant performances in Michel Tremblay’s autobiographical story, when they played mother and son. Pitre is well known as the star of Mamma Mia! in Toronto and on Broadway, as well as many other impressive credits. Matheson and Pitre returned to the Grand’s stage in his own work Could You Wait, a delightful World War II love story. Last summer, Matheson was a nasty Charlie Cowell in Stratford’s The Music Man. He is currently appearing in Toronto’s hit production of the Tony award winning Jersey Boys, but he took some time off from that show to bring his own creation of Hank Williams’ story to Petrolia. It has been interesting seeing this talented triple threat excel in a variety of roles.

As Hank Williams, Matheson gives a very professional show with obvious attention to detail. He has put together an interesting play list of Williams’ songs and researched his life to write witty banter, which he shares with the attentive audience between numbers.

Now, back to Hank. To be honest, I knew nothing about Hank Williams and wasn’t very interested in his music. I don’t remember Hank; he was long dead before I was born. Nonetheless, Hank Williams Live 1952 gives a fascinating glimpse of this country and western entertainer.

I was interested enough to look up old film of Hank on You Tube, and immediately it was obvious that Matheson gives a very realistic interpretation of Williams. From the smirky grin on his face to the fancy footwork of his cowboy boots, he looks like Hank. His singing voice is an exact replica with the yodelly-like sounds of old-school country music. Matheson covers all the songs that Hank liked to do – honky-tonk, blues, hillbilly and gospel.

Some songs were immediate hits with the opening night audience as spontaneous applause broke out – Honky Tonk Blues, Kawliga, Jambalaya, and I Saw the Light. Act I closes with Rootie Tootie, which allows for some audience participation. In all, 23 Hank Williams hits are crammed into the 2½-hour show.

Between songs, Matheson as Williams, complete with the southern drawl, chats comfortably with the audience. Obviously, Matheson has carefully scripted the repartee to educate us about Williams’ life. He also gets plenty of laughs with the amusing stories. He talks about working at the Grand Ole Opry with Minnie Pearl, explaining the Minnie has “bedroom eyes”, with those pillows under them. We hear how his music has transcended racial barriers – Hank says he learned from “a coloured fellow named Rufus” on the streets. Another influence was gospel music he listened to while sitting on a fence outside the church.

We also learn that Hank suffered from back pain due to spina bifida, and he had a serious problem with alcohol. In fact, 1952 was a bad year – his wife, Audrey, threw him out, and he lost his regular gig at the Grand Ole Opry.

A talented group of five musicians make up Hank’s band, playing steel guitar, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, drums and bass. To really improve the realism and make us believe it’s 1952, why not dress the band in cowboy shirts and hats? A big old cowboy hat would be a great way to hide those ponytails. Let’s face it; if a musician had long hair in 1952, he would have been laughed off the stage. Also, some band members need microphones. It was difficult to hear them when they joined in the banter or sang back up.

With the realistic music, funny stories and interesting history, Hank Williams Live 1952 makes for a very enjoyable evening. I learned a lot and had some laughs. But what we don’t hear in the show is that by January 1, 1953, at the young age of 29, Hank Williams was dead. Taking morphine for back pain and being a hard drinker proved lethal. A sad ending that happens all too often to talented performers.

Hank Williams Live 1952 continues at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until September 5. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or (519) 882-1221 for tickets.


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