BWW Reviews: TUTS Underground's Sterling HANDS ON A HARDBODY is a Winning Texas Treat
An often over-looked subject in the musical genre is the hardworking, semi-rural blue-collar working class American, but that is exactly the focus of HANDS ON A HARDBODY. The Texas-centric musical, based on the 1997 documentary of the same title, had its World Premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2012. In 2013, the entire original La Jolla cast opened the show on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. The Broadway run was met with limited success and closed after playing 28 previews and 28 performances. However, after seeing TUTS Underground's phenomenal Texas Premiere of the musical, I feel certain this show may find a new life.
As a die-hard fan of the documentary, I longed to see both the La Jolla and Broadway productions, but the fates simply didn't allow. But, even if you did see those productions, this Texas Premiere production is unlike any other HANDS ON A HARDBODY you have ever seen. Reviewing the cast album, I was swept away by Amanda Green's truthful lyrics, but the songs just didn't flow together the way I really wanted them to. For both the CD and this production, Amanda Green expertly captures the voices of these hardworking Texans with deft skill, allowing audiences to see them as real people and not as caricatures. Doug Wright's book for the musical does the same thing. Furthermore, Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green's score captures the sounds of Texas, mixing in honky-tonk, Texas country, and gospel flavors into their score. Every lyric and every spoken line sounds as though it were plucked from the daily lives of people in Longview, Texas, giving the show touching authenticity and integrity. However, it was a pleasant surprise for the audience when the songs were performed in a different order than they appeared as printed in the Playbill. Moreover, I found the issue with flow of the music to be fixed.
For this sterling production, Director Bruce Lumpkin has extensively reworked the order of the songs, allowing the show to capture what we all know to be true about Texas. Texas is all about heart. With a keen eye and ear he has gently massaged the production to fearlessly and unequivocally showcase the heart and grit of every single character on that stage. He keeps most of the quirky, fun character songs in the first act of the show, letting the humor of the piece draw the audience in. As the story progresses, his direction and choices allow the audience to deeply feel the pain and anguish of the characters. Their heartbreaks profoundly move us, even to tears on multiple occasions. Their exhaustion and lapses into sheer delirium are crushingly tangible. And, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Last night's opening night audience was so taken by the way the story was presented that audible gasps could be heard on multiple occasions as contestants took their hands off the Nissan truck they are vying for. Furthermore, during the final blackout the audience leapt to their feet, giving a rousing standing ovation before the cast even began their final bows.
Adding to the realism brought to the piece by Amanda Green, Doug Wright, and Bruce Lumpkin, Michelle Gaudette made a bold choice in her choreography for the production, and it works phenomenally in the intimate Zilkha Hall. Where Broadway choreographer Sergio Trujillo had the songs occur in a fantasy state that allowed the cast to remove their hands from the truck to dance, Michelle Gaudette keeps each number grounded in the reality of the competition. Hands are masterfully and purposefully kept on the truck as the cast sing and dance around it and each other. This ingenious decision makes it all the more impactful when the contestants start to fall off because the audience is never given a chance to become desensitized to seeing the contestants remove their hands from the hardbody.
As returning champion Benny Perkins, Drew Starlin creates a character that is rough around the edges and altogether rude. Life has dealt him a rather bad hand, and he takes it out on his fellow contestants. Repositioned to the second act, his cocky "Hunt with the Big Dogs" is nicely biting, allowing Drew Starlin to revel in being the character you love to hate. Yet, his eleven o'clock number "God Answered My Payers" is delivered with such power and vigor that the audience can't help but be moved by the performance. We empathize with his struggles and come to fully love the man hiding behind the pain.
Kevin Cooney's J.D. Drew is an underdog the audience can't help but love. He is kind and pleasant to every contestant in the competition, but his age and a recent surgery are the biggest obstacles he is facing. Full of unadulterated kindness and stories of the way things were, Kevin Cooney's J.D. Drew is the kind of man that everybody who lives in Texas knows several of. His reminiscent number "Used to Be" shows a longing for the simplicity of life that we have lost by losing the mom and pop shops of small town Texas to regional and national chains.
Donnie Hammond brings Norma Valverde, a stay at home mom and devout Christian, to sparkling life. With ebullient joy and smile-inducing happiness, Donnie Hammond makes this infectiously high-spirited character an audience favorite. With stellar vocals, she impressively performs the gospel inspired "Joy of the Lord" and its reprise with indefatigable pizzazz, lifting the spirits of most of her fellow contestants and every member of the audience.
Down on her luck waitress Heather Stovall is played to perfection by Julia Krohn. With her characterization we get to see the darker side of ambition, as she sacrifices her personal morals for a leg up in the competition. All of this plays against her psyche, which Julia Krohn imparts to the audience with ease, as we see her struggle with her feelings of guilt during numbers like "Burn That Bridge" among others.
Both Tyce Green, as former Marine Chris Alvaro, and John Ryan DelBosque, as a hopeful prospective veterinarian student at Texas A&M Jesus Peña, play their roles with strength, conviction, and determination. Silent for a majority of the show Tyce Green's Chris Alvaro has the training and toughness to take the prize. His riveting number "Stronger," which was wonderfully repositioned to the middle of Act II, left the audience both spellbound by the impeccable performance and with tear-streaked cheeks because of its gut wrenching thematic elements. Similarly, John Ryan DelBosque owns the stage during "Born in Laredo," which is now the third to last song in Act I. His authoritative performance fantastically handles issues of racism that Mexican-Americans face in our state and country, and its new position serves as a nice segue into the weightier tonality that pervades the air in the second act.
Playing the romantic plot with appealing tenderness, Cole Ryden as Greg Wilhote and Betty Marie Muessig as Kelli Mangrum charm the audience with sparkling youthfulness and their dreams of becoming somebody that people recognize and remember. They delicately beguile the audience on their sweetly crooned duet "I'm Gone."
Susan Koozin's Janis Curtis, much like her counterpart in the original documentary, is a true East Texas spitfire, making her one of the most memorable characters in the production. Her signature number "It's a Fix" has been repositioned to the first act, making that moment more closely mirror the source material and allowing the contestants to be more wary of cheating in the competition earlier on in the show. Anthony Boggess-Glover's Ronald McCowan offers the audience wonderful opportunities to laugh, and we can't help but admire his amusing lady killing wiles. He sings the snappy "My Problem Right There" with charisma and punch, making everyone in the audience his fan.
As supporters of contestants in the competition, Theresa Nelson's Virginia Drew and Brad Zimmerman's Don Curtis are caring and concerned. Theresa Nelson pulls on our heartstrings with her gentle performance of "Alone With Me," and Brad Zimmerman is comically quirky during "If She Don't Sleep."
Michael Tapley's Mike Ferris is the quintessential sleazy car salesman, making us laugh and cringe with dexterity. Brooke Wilson's Cindy Barnes is the contest adjudicator with her eyes on a prize of her own. Mark X Laskowski's Frank Nugent is a radio host trying to capture every aspect of the human story for his listeners. All three do a great job with "Hands on a Hardbody" at the top of Act II, mirthfully bringing the audience back into the show after intermission.
The technical elements all work together well to the benefit of the production. Matthew Schlief's Scenic Design creates a appealing backdrop for the rustic, failing Texas town with his beat-up billboard that has several layers of weathered advertisements on display all at once. Ray Delle Robbins Costume Design mimics the Broadway costuming, making these characters look like real people we see walking the streets of the Greater Houston area on a daily basis. Christina R. Giannelli's Lighting Design utilizes the upstage cyclorama to show the passing of time and color washes and spots to give the musical moments that polished and emotional Broadway feel. Andrew Harper's Sound Design makes sure we hear every syllable of sung lines and every moment of spoken dialogue, all while mixing the live band with the vocals perfectly.
TUTS Underground's HANDS ON A HARDBODY moved me in ways I never expected it to. I rarely cry at anything, but I found myself moved to tears four times during the second act. It has been a long time since I have had such a visceral reaction to a piece of theatre, and I truly feel that Bruce Lumpkin and Michelle Gaudette have tapped into the heart and soul of this piece. After seeing last night's opening night performance, I feel certain that HANDS ON A HARDBODY can and should be the A CHORUS LINE of my generation. No longer do we need to sing "I hope I get it." Now, our dreams can be encapsulated by both the song and the lyric "If I had this truck."
TUTS Underground's Texas Premiere of HANDS ON A HARDBODY runs in the Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through June 22, 2014. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.tutsunderground.com or call (713) 558-8887.
Photos by Christina Brown. Courtesy of TUTS Underground.
The cast of TUTS Underground's HANDS ON A HARDBODY.
John Ryan DelBosque with cast of TUTS Underground's HANDS ON A HARDBODY.