Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Hands on a Hardbody is an insightful, moving, and–just often enough–funny depiction of working class people in pursuit of the American dream, and almost always falling short. I say "almost always" because the show is based on a contest that really took place in Longview, Texas, back in 1995. So, yes, for the winning contestant, the American dream came true, at least for that moment in time.
The real event had twenty-four contestants, whittled down to ten for the musical, vying to win a bright red Nissan pickup truck–a real beauty! All they had to do was stand with one hand on the truck. Whoever was the last holdout, keeping one hand on the truck, got to drive it home. Sound easy? Think again. With just a fifteen-minute break every six hours, the contest went on for days, challenging sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst, and mental focus. Conceived as a publicity stunt for the dealership–dubbed Floyd King Nissan in the show–it turns into a grueling test of determination and spirit.
At Hands for a Hardbody, the audience is seated in three rows (high-top seats in the third row, and space for standees behind those) around an actual red Nissan pickup, the assemblage taking up about half the floor of Luther Cadillac's spacious showroom in Roseville. The actual contest was held outdoors, making weather a factor, so this is not complete verisimilitude. But pretty darn close.
A documentary film about the contest–also titled Hands on a Hardbody–won a few awards on the festival circuit in 1996. That drew the attention of filmmaker Robert Altman, who was developing the property into a movie at the time of his death in 2006. Altman's gift for presenting interlocking narratives must have seemed ideal for the project. Instead, it was picked up by the La Jolla Playhouse, who commissioned an impressive creative team to transform the story into a musical. The book is by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner (for I Am My Own Wife) Douglas Wright, the lyrics are by Amanda Green, and the music composed by Green and Trey Anastasio, lead guitarist of the rock group Phish. The book draws together hopes and dreams–and fears–of the contestants, while the songs, which have a unifying country slant, further develop those themes. It is high quality work, more than deserving of our attention.
An opening number establishes the terrain, a small city in east Texas. This is not the Texas of Dallas or Austin, but the Texas of rig workers, both employed and out of work, living close to the bone. Life here without a truck is a sad affair. In a second song, aptly called "If I Had This Truck," each contestant reveals how winning this truck would change their lives. All of them need money; as one contestant says, "a car doesn't make money; a truck makes money!" Economics is the main thing for some of them–a way to get ahead or a way to keep afloat. The truck can mean other things as well, such as a ticket to freedom or a way to care for their family.
As the contest continues for hours, and then days, the contestants get to know one another. Benny is a returning champion, having won the same contest a couple of years back, which grates on the other contestants. For his part, Benny seeks out everyone's vulnerability and takes pleasure in riling them up. JD is the oldest of the contestants, nursing an injured leg wrapped in a brace. His wife Ginny ices his leg during the rest breaks. Norma has been called by God to win the truck, with several prayer chains supporting her crusade. Chris is a Marine returned from combat with signs of PTSD, Jesus will sell the truck for money to go to veterinary college, and laid-off Greg will drive the truck to Hollywood and become a stuntman. On the sidelines, the dealer's head salesman, Mike Ferris, and marketing chief, Cindy Barnes, go head to head about what is at stake for them, while radio host Frank Nugent cheerfully covers the event for the local listeners.
Through songs and spoken scenes, each character becomes something more, a person whose potential in life has been blockaded, for whom winning this truck would represent a victory over the fates. Along with the competition there is tenderness, as some form alliances, even friendships, and they offer one another support–an incipient community–always, though, aware that they want to win, meaning all these other nice (not so nice, in Benny's case) people will have to lose. It is a conundrum our that the market forces of our economic system inflict on many of us.
Lest Hands on a Hardbody sound overly somber or static, it is neither. The show is very lively, the music ranges from roof-raising gospel to country swing to tender ballads. Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha has set the show in constant motion, with contestants moving around the truck, and–during their allowed breaks–around the sales floor at Floyd King Nissan. Abbi Fern's choreography opens things up again and again, and astounds in the number of ways dance can be designed around a truck. The book is anything but dry, with humor, twists in the plot, the suspense of wondering who will be first to drop out, then who will be next, and on to the conclusion, as the challenge increasingly takes a toll on their minds and bodies.
The performances are a mixed bag, with some very good ones, especially from James Lane as Benny Perkins, Kyle Doherty as Chris Alvaro, Christian Unser as J.D Drew, and Cassie Utt as Heather Stovall, the good-looking blonde contestant who can't help but keep up her lipstick even as the others are wilting. Also impressive are Gianna Schiller as self-serving Cindy Barnes, Christy C. Johnson as the ever-devout Norma Valverde, Brandon Cayetano as Jesús Peña, and Roland Hawkins II as boastful ladies' man Ronald McCowan. As Ginny, Aly O'Keeffe's lovely voice offers a gorgeous delivery of the heartbreaking "Alone With You."
There is no set–Luther's Cadillac showroom is all the set needed, and they have graciously brought in the Nissen pickup from an associated dealer. Jorie Ann Kosel's costumes are well suited to each character and the circumstances of their lives. With the show performed in front of floor to ceiling glass facing busy Highway 36, lighting the show is a bit tricky, especially for the matinee, which I attended, but that is all part of placing the production in an authentic setting. Considering the room was not designed with acoustics in mind, audio designer Abe Gabor has done an excellent job of assuring that all speech and the music from the well-tuned seven-piece band conducted by Jean Orbison Van Heel comes out loud and clear.
When Hands on a Hardbody arrived on Broadway in 2013 it received warmly approving reviews. Unfortunately, in today's climate, warmly approving does not translate into a run, unless a mega-star is appearing. Hands on a Hardbody played only seven weeks–half of those preview performances. It would be all too easy for the show to go unseen and unheard, which would be a shame. Minneapolis Musical Theatre, true to their credo of presenting "rare musicals, well done," has come through again. Hands on a Hardbody is well worth seeing, a thoroughly entertaining and tuneful show that offers insights into the abrasions that accompany our nation's ongoing grasp for the American dream.
Hands on a Hardbody, a Minneapolis Musical Theatre production, runs through May 8, 2022, at Luther Cadillac, 2325 Prior Ave. N., Roseville MN. Tickets: $45.00 - $24.00; Students and Seniors (65+) - $5.00 discounts. $10.00 standing room available. For information and tickets, please visit www.aboutmmt.org or call 612-440-6681.
Book: Doug Wright; Music: Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green; Lyrics: Amanda Green; Director: Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha; Choreographer: Abbi Fern; Music Director: Jean Orbison Van Heel; Costume Design: Jorie Ann Kosel; Lighting Design: Jeffrey R. Johnson; Audio Design: Abe Gabor: Props Design: Joe Hendren; Violence Director: Mason Tyer; Spanish Coach: Agustina Victoria Borré; Stage Manager: Jeni Long.
Cast: Elysia Bickford (ensemble), Brandon Cayetano (Jesus Peña), Kyle Doherty (Chris Alvaro), Marie Finch-Koinuma (Kelli Mangrum), John Goodrich (Frank Nugent), Roland Hawkins II), Christy C. Johnson (Norma Valverde), James Lane (Benny Perkins), Keaton Lane (ensemble), Anissa Lubbers (ensemble), Charlie Morgan (Mike Ferris), Aly O'Keeffe (Virginia Drew), Jenny Ramirez (Janis Curtis), Steven Ramirez (Don Curtis/Dr. Stokes), Emily Rosenberg (Greg Wilhote), Gianna Schiller (Cindy Barnes), Christian Unser (J.D. Drew), Cassie Utt (Heather Stovall).