Story: Ten down-on-their-luck contestants vie for the ownership of a new ‘hardbody’ pick-up truck being given away at a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas. The trick is for a contestant to keep at least one hand on the vehicle at all times (apart from brief, infrequent breaks) until the other nine contestants drop out. It’s every man for himself, every woman for herself and everybody for the keys to a fresh start to their troubled lives.
Highlights: A well-worn cliché in modern language is the term ‘perfect storm,’ usually referring to a time when all the requirements for an epic disaster fall into place at precisely the optimal moment for maximum destruction.
A perfect storm, however, need not be negative. In the case of the musical, Hands on a Hardbody, story, music and production all come together seamlessly in New Line Theatre’s brilliant and captivating presentation currently being performed at the Washington University South Campus Theatre. This may very well be the best local production of 2014 to date.
Other Info: For starters, author Doug Wright’s book is intelligent and thorough as it clearly delineates the lives of each of the participants in this grueling endurance test, a latter-day version of the Depression-era dance marathons immortalized in the 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? If memory serves, though, that classic flick was a downer, intensely depressing stuff.
In contrast, Wright’s smart, compact script leavens the serious reasons for each contestant’s participation with an abundance of humor that is pointedly brought to the fore by directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy. Based on a 1997 documentary of the same name, Wright’s book strikes a carefully calibrated balance between the depressing and the amusing in this tale of decent folks squeezed by the relentless grip of the Great Recession.
The wide-ranging musical score by composer Trey Anastasio (of the rock group Phish) and lyricist Amanda Green (who also gave us the wonderful High Fidelity, another show resurrected by Miller) is filled with finger-snapping, toe-tapping, head-moving tunes. By the way, considering that most of the performers spend most of their time literally standing around that cynosure vehicle, Hands on a Hardbody is deceptively exhilarating.
Another of the pluses of Wright’s script is that he respects these characters, even with their backwoods ways and comparative lack of education. There are villainous moments, to be sure, when ego gets the better of generosity, but a surprising amount of the time these folks care for each other, commiserating with others’ plights.
Accentuating that theme is an ensemble effort as tight as the impoverished budgets of the middle-class, working-class individuals broiling under the mid-day sun at this dealership in east Texas, thanks to the carefully crafted direction of Miller and Dowdy.
Somehow, scenic designer Rob Lippert moved a real-enough looking pickup truck onto the set that it obviously dominates, beneath a banner proclaiming ‘Floyd King Nissan,’ with a few chairs to the side for a couple of spouses lending moral and physical support to their beloved. Kenneth Zinkl adds lighting, Kerrie Mondy furnishes sound design and Kimi Short provides props. Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert are responsible for the highly effective costumes that do a splendid job of helping define each character.
Musical highlights are numerous, placed judiciously throughout the show’s lively two acts and enlivened by a band that’s conducted in inspired fashion by Sue Goldford. Guitarist D. Mike Bauer, cellist Emily Ebrecht, violinist Nikki Glenn, Andrew Gurney on bass, percussionist Clancy Newell and second keyboardist join pianist Goldford for smooth renditions of the delightfully eclectic score.
There’s a joyous gospel number, e.g., led by Anna Skidis as a devoutly religious mother and wife, and a sensational country rock tune sung by Marshall Jennings, with Skidis, Wiegert and Taylor Pietz as his sizzling girl back-up trio.
There’s a humorous but biting country tune, It’s a Fix, whereby contestant Cindy Duggan and Keith Thompson as her supportive husband acknowledge that they’re rednecks but not stupid hicks. And Zachary Allen Farmer as a local DJ broadcasting from the site kicks off Act II with a hard-rocking number that raises the roof.
Each of the performers gets his or her chance to shine on tunes that explain their characters in natural, unforced style that underscores the beautiful simplicity in Green’s lyrics to explain the motivation behind their participation. The marvelous cast includes Jeffrey Wright as a macho guy who’s actually won one of these before. Todd Schaefer and Alison Helmer are a long-married couple needing a boost after he was injured on the job and then fired.
Dowdy plays the big-talking, big-dreaming and scheming dealership owner and Margeau Baue Steinau is his long-suffering assistant. Ryan Foizey and Wiegert are appealing as a pair of youngsters attracted to each other during the long hours standing at the truck, and Pietz is a Texas beauty hoping to catch the brass ring.
Reynaldo Arceno is an aspiring veterinary student whose Hispanic appearance raises the specter of bigotry in some folks, while Luke Steingruby is a silent ex-Marine who forebodingly resists the urge to join in on the rousing Joy of the Lord gospel number.
There’s a perfect storm underway with New Line’s regional premiere of Hands on a Hardbody, a musical that deserved a longer run on Broadway in 2013. If you like many musical styles all done impeccably, take this production for a test run.
Musical: Hands on a Hardbody
Company: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: June 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $10-$20; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg