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Hands on a Hardbody

Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green

Lyric by Amanda Green, Book by Doug Wright

Directed by Scott Miller

New Line Theatre May 27, 2014

Anna Skidis, Jeffrey M. Wright Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Anna Skidis, Jeffrey M. Wright
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s a musical about a truck.  That’s essentially all I knew before seeing New Line’s new production of Hands On a Hardbody.  I had heard one or two of the songs, and I knew the basic premise and had read good comments about it online, but unlike a lot of musicals I see, I didn’t know much else.  It’s nice to go into a show like this relatively unspoiled, because then I can be surprised. New Line’s production is a very pleasant surprise, indeed. One important thing I realized upon seeing it is that this is not just a show about a truck.  It’s about people and their hopes, dreams, disappointments and aspirations, and a richly detailed evocation of small-town Texas life in the wake of the recent economic recession.  With some catchy songs, a strong cast and excellent staging, New Line brings this show to life in vibrant, life-affirming style.

Based on a 1997 documentary about a real contest, Hands on Hardbody takes place in Longview, Texas, as a of group of characters of different ages and backgrounds gather at the Floyd King Nissan dealership to compete in an endurance competition, with the prize being a much-coveted icon of Texas life, a shiny red pickup truck. The rules are simple–keep at least one hand on the truck at all times, outside in the summer heat, with no leaning or squatting, without the aid of chemical stimulants, and with only a 15 minute break every six hours.  Over the course of five days, the contestants battle fatigue, sleep deprivation and psychological pressure as they each try to outlast the others, with the last one standing getting to go home with the prize.  Throughout the competition, we get to meet the different contestants and hear their stories, why they entered the contest, and what they plan to do if they win.  Among the hopefuls are a cocky previous champion, Benny (Jeffrey M. Wright), the bubbly and devoutly Christian working mother, Norma (Anna Skidis), the battle-scarred young Marine, Chris (Luke Steingruby), and the middle-aged and world-weary JD (Todd Schaefer), who is recovering from a severe leg injury and feels coddled by his concerned wife Virginia (Alison Helmer), who is watching on the sidelines.  Another supportive spouse is Don (Keith Thompson), who is enthusiastically cheering on his wife Janis (Cindy Duggan).  There are also young contestants Greg (Ryan Foizey) and Kelli (Marcy Weigert), who connect over their mutual dream to experience life outside of small town Texas, as well as Jesus (Reynaldo Aceno), who wants to raise money to pay for college.  Along with the upbeat Ron (Marshall Jennings) and the determined and conflicted Heather (Taylor Pietz), these very different people express their hopes and their frustrations, make friendships, form alliances and endure conflicts on the way to the inevitable and suspenseful conclusion. There can only be one winner, although there is much to learn all around, as expressed in the uplifting epilogue “Keep Your Hands On It” as the winner and “losers” sing about what they learned and what happened in their lives after the contest.  It’s a stirring story of friendship, love, faith, disillusionment, fear, economic hardship, and the ever-enduring sense of hope that there’s something better down the road.

Musically, the style is mostly country-flavored, with influences of gospel, Latin music and southern rock.  As usual with New Line, the singing is excellent across the board, with Jennings, Foizey, Pietz , Wiegert and Zachary Allen Farmer (as local radio DJ Frank Nugent, who is broadcasting the event) especially standing out with their strong, clear voices.  While there is no real choreography to speak of, this show presents a particular challenge in the area of staging, since so much time is spent with the various characters standing in the same place. Director Scott Miller has risen to that challenge admirably, and the show never gets boring or static, as the players move around the truck in time to the music in some moments, while in others, the truck is used for percussion accompaniment such as on the rousing “Joy of the Lord” number led by Skidis.

In terms of acting, there are many memorable performances, with the standouts being Schaefer as the ailing but stubbornly determined JD, Wright as the alternately villainous and sympathetic Benny, and Skidis as the infectiously devout Norma. There’s great comic work from Thompson, Duggan and Jennings. Mike Dowdy and Margeau Baue Steinau also provide excellent support as the bickering managers of the dealership, and Foizey and Wiegert display excellent chemistry as two young people developing a quick bond, as do Wright and Helmer as a couple who obviously love each other despite their differences.  There are nice little moments with all of the characters, however, and there isn’t a weak link in this whole cast.  The writing helps, but the actors really flesh out these characters and make them seem like real people rather than just a collection of stereotypes.

Visually, although there isn’t much of a demand for a set beyond a desk, a big banner, some lawn chairs and that ever-important red truck, all of these elements are well-realized by scenic designer Rob Lippert and crew. Costumers Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert are to be commended for finding just the right outfits for all the individual characters and adding to the very small-town Texas vibe of the show.  Aside from a few minor sound issues (microphone crackling, mostly), this show is as seamless technically as it is dramatically and musically.

This show only ran on Broadway for a short time, although it garnered some excellent reviews and a lot of award nominations. I’m sure it was great on Broadway, although I didn’t get to see it there. Still, I think a smaller scale regional theatre setting probably works better for a show like this, especially in the very capable hands of Miller and his extremely impressive cast and crew.  It’s a vibrant, energetic, and deeply compelling production with characters just as full of vibrant color as the truck they are all vying for.  Although that truck can ultimately only go to one person, everyone is a winner in the long run, and that includes the audience of this big, shiny, colorful prize of  a show.

Set for Hands on a Hardbody Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Set for Hands on a Hardbody
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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