Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (ETC) has had success in the past with shows written by Doug Wright, namely I Am My Own Wife and Grey Gardens, so it isn't a surprise that they are one of the first regional theaters to present his new musical Hands on a Hardbody. This unique story doesn't particularly scream out for being musicalized, but ETC provides a very strong production with a top-notch cast and worthwhile design elements.
Hands on a Hardbody is a musical adaptation of a 1997 documentary that follows the participants in a contest in Longview, Texas, to win a new truck by keeping their hands on it for the longest. The 2013 Broadway production was a fast flop, but a number of regional theaters are scheduled to mount the show this season.
The book by Mr. Wright loosely follows the documentary, wisely focusing on fewer contestants and adding elements of tension and suspense for dramatic effect. Wright has created some genuine characters and relationships, and presents an interesting exploration of the human condition, as each person strives and reaches for something meaningfulhope, connection, or material sustenance. Unlike almost all other musicals, these characters are gritty, blue-collar, and authentic. The weakness in the story (and the musical as a whole) is that it chronicles everyday people doing something fairly mundane, which doesn't provide the most engaging theatergoing.
The score boasts music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Ms. Green. The songs are highly melodic country, R&B, or gospel flavored tunes (and arrangements), and often have witty or insightful lyrics. The best songs are the opening "Human Drama Kind of Thing"; the humorous "My Problem Right There"; "Joy of the Lord," one gal's catchy a cappella praise to God for the opportunity to win the truck; and "God Answered My Prayers," which manages to be both clever and poignant. As worthwhile as the individual songs are, however, it seems that the score as a whole is less effective than the sum of its parts. This is likely due to the structure of the songs, with several group numbers leading off and then curtailing into each character getting their own song, which seems a bit formulaic.
The wonderful cast is a combination of local favorites along with some talented visitors. As past winner Benny Perkins, Charlie Clark sings and acts with gusto and skill. He emphasizes the humor of the role, which makes his darker revelations late in the show even more effective. Phil Fiorini brings empathy as the older and injured JD Drew, and sings well throughout. There are many moments for the other thirteen supporting performers to shine. Especially praiseworthy are Sara Mackie (tender, faithful, and joyous Norma), Deb. G. Girdler (feisty and cantankerous Janis), Denise Devlin (sexy and spunky Heather), Geoffrey Warren Barnes II (funny and friendly Ronald), Brooke Steele (hopeful country gal Kelli), and Michael Shawn Starks (slimy car salesman Mike).
Director D. Lynn Meyers has led her cast to create and maintain authentic characterizations throughout, and the show conveys the appropriate tone and pace for the material. There should be more clearly defined transitions between reality and fantasy, however. Frequently, during the fantasy moments, the participants take their hands off the car without consequence (while sitting or standing on the truck), but it isn't always clear that what the audience sees isn't really happening within the context of the show. The choreography by Patti James helps to overcome the inherently static nature of the show, and dances are highlighted during "My Problem Right There" and "Stronger" (using an apt military theme). Both the direction and choreography are similar to that employed in New York with enough variations in each to be original. Music Director Scot Woolley has prepared his vocalists well, but it is odd to hear ETC using recorded instrumentation.
Brian Mehring's simple yet effective set incorporates benches, pennant streamers, and a large Floyd King Nissan sign, all in red, white, and black. The truck is the same one used on Broadway and is delightfully flexible in its use. Mr. Mehring's lighting effectively creates space (the internal offices of the car dealership) and has a couple of nice effects during "Born in Laredo" and "My Problem Right There." The costumes by Reba Senske are setting appropriate and fun.
Hands on a Hardbody is a good but not great show. Despite well-written songs, the material isn't compelling enough for a first-rate musical. However, little fault can be found with ETC's winning production. Superb performances, fine direction and dances, and handsome design elements provide a strong kick-off to the Cincinnati area theater season. The show continues through September 21, 2014, at the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. For tickets, please visit www.ensemblecincinnati.org or call (513) 421-3555.