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Cheatin' Art 

The Hank Williams story boasts a stunning likeness and a script that's woefully overwrought.

Petty sympathy: The leading man's spot-on - impersonation is Lost Highway's greatest - asset.
  • Petty sympathy: The leading man's spot-on impersonation is Lost Highway's greatest asset.
The Cleveland Play House opened its season by channeling the patrician glamour of Katharine Hepburn; for an encore, it's evoking the ramshackle fun of the Grand Ole Opry in Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams. It's a pretext to resurrect country music's favorite martyr from his early grave, so he can once again let out that immortal musical wail, a plangent piece of Americana that rivals John Wayne's manly saunter. It comes off as a competent musical tribute that falls short as a theatrical journey.

Anyone who has ever been pleasantly intoxicated by the pathos of Williams's "Your Cheatin' Heart" can verify the authentic impersonation delivered by Jason Petty, who has been inhabiting the doomed singer since 1996. The rhinestoned reproduction has Williams down to a science: from the way his rhythmically knocking knees suggest Williams's suppressed sexuality (a stunning precursor to Elvis's pelvic thrusts) to the mournful, unmistakable nasal twang -- vocal moonshine that would later inspire such wryly discontented figures as Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan.

The show is at its best when the focus is on Petty's genuine musical impersonations, including the whiskey-soaked longing of "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You" and the joyful mockery of "Hey, Good Lookin'." Musically, it's a joyful noise that unearths the good old boy buried in an audience full of urban sophisticates.

But for all his painstaking work, Petty is betrayed by the authors' hubris. Randal Myler (who also directs) and Mark Harelik have both hit pay dirt in previous works: Myler by exposing Joplin's inner demons off-Broadway in Love, Janis; Harelik by chronicling his grandfather's story in The Immigrant. Perhaps success has made them greedy, but they're not content to sit back and let the music carry the show. Instead, they try to weave an epic of the American people -- part Steinbeck and part John Ford -- with woeful results, full of pretentiousness and waste.

The clichés come early and often, beginning with the cringeworthy opening declaration: "Oh my God, Hank Williams is dead!" (which could just as well have kicked off the life stories of Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, or Evita Perón). The story's focus is muddied by too many peripheral characters, like the waitress assigned to the side of the stage for an act and a half, until she utters a completely beside-the-point monologue about the alienation of servers; and the two black actors at the other side of the stage, placed there for atmosphere and the occasional spiritual. There's also the castrating mother (a psychotically superb Margaret Bowman), the loyal buddies, the floozy wife, and the good-hearted manager. It is sadly apropos that Lost Highway reduces a true American original to a plastic souvenir at the theatrical Cracker Barrel.

If Lost Highway represents the perils of mass-marketing a legend, Cirque du Soleil, presented by the Quidam troupe, is all about the triumph of capitalism. In the manner of a Las Vegas Disneyland or MGM in its heyday, it showcases a cherished institution at its peak of perfection. At Cirque du Soleil, even the Port-O-Potties have flair.

The show, which takes place in the dazzlingly bedecked parking lot of the Nautica Complex in the Flats, started 18 years ago as a performance-art festival in Quebec, and it has grown into the touring embodiment of wish-fulfillment fantasy. With its all-human cast performing an array of traditional circus feats, it exudes an infinite weave of professionalism and exquisite imagery -- equal parts American in Paris ballet, living Dali canvas, and decadent ancient Rome. It is at once the ultimate reward for the child that lurks within us and a show too intense for actual young children.

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More by Keith A. Joseph

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