Cap Rep production focuses on meteoric rise and tragic demise of country star Hank Williams

A new production at Capital Repertory Theatre tells the story of Hank Williams, the first megastar i
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Tony Barton was never a fan of country music as a kid, although he admits he never really gave it much of a chance.

“I was from a very small town in the Midwest where you generally heard a lot of country music, and I think I fought it for a long time,” said Barton, a New York City-based actor who will play the title character in “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” previewing tonight through Tuesday and opening Wednesday at Capital Repertory Theatre. “Then I got a construction job one summer and I was forced to listen. I was probably 16 or 17, and I really fell in love with it.”

“Hank Williams: The Lost Highway,” directed by Cap Rep producing artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, is the story of country music legend Hank Williams — the first megastar in the business and a man who self-destructed and died at the height of his popularity at the age of 29 on Jan. 1, 1953. His first big success came just four years earlier in 1949 and with songs such as “Cold, Cold Heart,” “You’re Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’ ” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Williams was on top of the country music world before a combination of drug and alcohol abuse brought everything to an end in the back of a chauffeured-limousine outside an all-night service station in Oak Hill, Tenn.

Story with highs, lows

“Hank never got what he needed to pull out of the downward spiral,” said Barton, “and we’re not giving away the ending because at the beginning of the show you hear the announcement of his death. There’s the suggestion that he’s up in heaven and he wants all his fans to know he’s not dead. We do see him as a boy, and then we cover the three to four years before his death. It’s a story with some highs and lows, but I think it’s also uplifting.”

’Hank Williams: Lost Highway’

WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany

WHEN: Previews tonight through Tuesday, opens Wednesday and runs through May 17. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

HOW MUCH: $46-$36

MORE INFO: 445-7469 or www.capitalrep.org

Although Barton sings 22 of Williams’ songs in this production, the play, written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, is much more than just a musical revue.

“This is a great book with really well-written scenes,” said Barton. “We take people on a journey, and I think it’s one they’re going to enjoy. Despite his problems, he was always likable, and you’re always rooting for him to succeed.”

Barton most recently had been performing in “The Full Monty” in Jupiter, Fla., and took some time off to run up to New York and audition for the Hank Williams role. When he got it, he immediately picked up his cellphone and called his mother.

“My mother always wanted me to be a country singer,” said Barton. “When Maggie told me I got the part, I immediately called my mother and told her, ‘Hey, I’m a country singer.’ She was very happy with me.”

Barton may have found himself enjoying country music in his late teens, but he still didn’t embrace it. Instead, he became a classically trained opera singer, heading to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for a master’s degree in vocal performance after going for four years to Illinois State.

“We didn’t have a lot of musical opportunities in my hometown. So I really didn’t start thinking of it as a career until I got to college,” said Barton. “I then pursued opera for six or seven years, but I felt like something was missing from the opera world. There were great singers, but sometimes there was a lack of attention to the book and the story and that made me feel a little empty. I then turned toward musical theater, and, while I love it, sometimes it’s hard to really sink your teeth into the characters. There’s nothing below the surface. That’s why I really like this play. You can really get into the characters.”

It was Barton’s ability to get into the Williams character that earned him the role, according to Mancinelli-Cahill. That, and his ability to yodel like Williams.

“I was unhappy at auditions because I couldn’t find a Hank Williams that I felt really embodied the singing, as well as the spirit, that an actor had to bring to this role and the story line,” said Mancinelli-Cahill. “Then at the callbacks, I kept on making [Barton] yodel. That’s when I knew he was it. I said, ‘I got him.’ ”

Story still resonates

Mancinelli-Cahill said that Williams’ story, now a half-century old, still resonates today with modern audiences.

“He was a brilliant singer-composer whose public rise to fame and accompanying personal tragedy unfolded under the harsh light of the public eye,” she said. “He was able to write from the heart, and he was the first major performer to experience all the excesses of superstardom that we take for granted today.”

According to Barton, Hank Williams’ upbringing wasn’t that much different from his own.

“I got my musical ability from my father, who was in a barbershop quartet, and I sang in the church choir, just like Hank did,” said Barton. “My momma put me up there in the pulpit and made me sing. So there are a lot of ways that I connect to Hank. We had some similar experiences when we were young. I think the key to this performance is to find the essence of his character, and I think my upbringing really helps my performance.”

Barton said that by the end of “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” audience members should feel like they were a part of the show.

“We want the people there to clap and express their emotions, just like people would have done at a Hank Williams’ concert,” said Barton. “If they want to let Jesus get ahold of them for a while, that’s fine — whatever they have to do to enjoy themselves.”

Capital Rep regular David Malachowski handles the musical direction for “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” and plays Jimmy, a member of Williams’ band, the Cowboy Drifters. Also in the cast are Tyson Jennette as Tee Tot, Williams’ mentor, while Michael Hayes of Poestenkill and Kevin Maul of Round Lake play Fred and Shag, respectively, members of the Cowboy Drifters.

Categories: Life and Arts

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