Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body, the musical follows ten down on their luck individuals as they take part in an endurance contest at a Texas Nissan auto dealership to see who can keep their hand on a truck the longest. The last person standing, who still has one of their hands on the hardbody truck, gets to drive it home. It is a competition that goes on for several days and the show focuses on the hopes and dreams of these characters who are individuals that you rarely see musicalized. They are all financially strapped Americans, of various ethnicities and ages, who are desperate to win the truck in order to change their lives for the better.
Hands on a Hardbody is the perfect example of an ensemble musical, with each of the contestants getting their moment in the spotlight to sing about their experiences and aspirations and to let us know why winning the truck is so important to them. However, with such a large cast, the focus is placed on a few central characters. These include the villain of the piece, Benny Perkins (played by Justin Jutras), the man who won the competition previously. Jutras has the right commanding delivery for this man who is willing to do what he needs to do in order to win again, even intimidating the other contestants at times. Jutras also occasionally lets us see the pain Benny is hiding and how he is wrestling with plenty of demons of his own. Luther Chakurian does well as J.D. Drew, the oldest contestant, who sees winning the truck as a way to feel young again after recovering from a recent surgery, with Carolyn McPhee providing nice support as his caring wife.
Other highlights in the cast include Eleonore S. Thomas as a deeply religious woman who believes God is working through her and wants her to win the truck. Thomas gets one of the big showstopping songs, "Joy of the Lord," which starts off with her uncontrollable laughter, segues into an impromptu drum session where the truck is used by everyone as their personal drum set, and ends with soaring vocals. Madison Cichon and Nick Hurm are winning as two young adults who find a mutual connection during the contest, and Johanna Carlisle and Rob Watson are hilarious as loudmouth contestant Janis and her loving and deeply devoted husband Don. Eddie Maldonado and Nick Moulton deliver well-nuanced portrayals of the young Hispanic veterinary student who plans to sell the truck to pay for his courses and the recently discharged marine who needs to prove himself, respectively, who encounter prejudice from the people around them. Laron Lee Hudson and Hannah Bentley provide powerful vocals and clear performances as Ronald, the sugar-loving, passionate man who wants the truck to start his own lawn service, and Heather, the young pretty girl who it seems will do anything to win the truck.
While the truck for ABT's production (borrowed from the University of Arizona's recent production of the show) isn't used quite as effectively as the one on Broadway, where the large vehicle moved all over the stage and spun around at a fast pace, it is still center stage and plays a huge part in the production. It is on casters, so the cast is able to easily move it around and the audience doesn't always get the same view of it. The direction by Danny Gorman and choreography by Kurtis W. Overby focuses on not just having the truck be the focus of the piece, but finding an effective way to move it around and bring the individual characters into focus. Gorman's direction and his talented cast create many realistic and heartfelt moments. Tim Monson's lighting design superbly shows the blazing hot orange and red daytime moments of the contest and the deep, dark cool blues of the scenes set late at night. Lottie Dixon's costumes clearly portray, with just a few pieces of unique clothing for each, the differences in the contestants, and Mark 4Man's music direction achieves some rich harmonies and a full sound from the small orchestra.
With a book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Green, Hands on a Hardbody has its heart in the right place, and the dialogue and songs that are a blend of folk, soft country and gospel style fit the Texas characters fairly well. However, there is very little surprising in the plot, with many of the actions of the characters not very revealing. Also, there is a bit too much focus on the two people who run the car dealership (effectively played at ABT by Danny Arnold and a luminous, yet feisty, Kat Bailes) and the issues they are having with their inventory. Every time the car dealership office set glides onto the stage, it seems to stop the momentum of the story with yet another unnecessary scene or song that isn't about the people hoping to win the truck. We are rooting for the participants in the contest, not the people who work at the dealership, after all, though I understand that these moments show that those who work at the dealership have issues of their own.
While Hands on a Hardbody is entertaining and moving in parts, it is also somewhat repetitive with several of the characters' big solo songs immediately preceding their elimination from the contest. This creates a bit of a problem when, as soon as someone starts singing a song that gives you a view of their past and allows you to connect with them, there is a strong chance they'll be eliminated and you won't ever see them again. However, even with these shortcomings and the fact that the stories of the mostly poor characters are somewhat depressing, and predictable, the final song is uplifting and hopeful and one that will most likely be playing in your head for days.
Hands on a Hardbody runs through September 24th, 2017, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.
Based on the documentary by S. R. Bindler
*Member, Actors' Equity Association