BWW Review: FAC's HANDS ON A HARDBODY is a Vehicle for the Voice of America's Working Class
If you've ever thought, "They'll turn anything into a musical"...well, you're not wrong. Yet somehow, a musical about a competition to win a truck in a small Texas town brings subject matter that might be heavier than the truck itself.
Hands on a Hardbody (based on the 1997 documentary film of the same name) had a short life on Broadway in 2013, lasting barely a couple of months, but it still snagged some Tony Award attention, including Best Original Score by Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Amanda Green. The book is by Doug Wright. Making its regional premiere at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Hardbody features a dynamic and well-cast ensemble, directed and choreographed by Nathan Halvorson.
There's 10 vying for the prize, and all they have to do is keep their hand on it the longest - no squatting, no leaning. There's a guy who's already won the contest, Benny (Jeffrey Roark); J.D. (Mark Rubald), whose body might not be strong enough, worrying his wife, Virginia (Judeth Shay Comstock); Ronald (Shabazz Green), a vivacious fellow who thinks he can live on candy bars; Greg (Parker Fowler), a wannabe stuntman who falls for UPS worker, Kelli (Brittany Ambler); Janis (Jen Lennon), who's in it with her abrasively supportive husband, Don (Bob Morsch); military vet, Chris (Dylan Hartwell); Norma (Ella Nora Thomas), who finds strength in the Lord; aspiring veterinarian Jesus (Cedric Leiba, Jr) who's Texan-born with Mexican roots; and Heather (Carmen Vreeman Shedd), who's made a deal with the dealership to be in the competition.
The story plays a bit like A Chorus Line, delving into each characters' lives and why they're participating in the competition. The plot follows nearly 5 days of struggle as each contestant is eliminated for one reason or another. You slowly watch the characters crumble mentally and physically as the challenge becomes too much.
The score is a bit more country, and while the songs aren't necessarily memorable, it's a solid score (played by an excellent band). The performances are what propel the story, keeping it engaging. Norma's "Joy of the Lord" is a jubilant celebration that'll make you clap along, and Chris's ballad "Stronger" is a heart-wrenching highlight.
Set design by Lex Liang (who also costumed) brings a gorgeously paneled Texas landscape strewn with familiar retail billboards, complements by a remarkable lighting design by Jonathan Spencer. One of the better parts of the show is watching the stage transform from scene to scene.
While the show's conservative tone might not have been the best fit for Broadway, it settles nicely into the military and religious landscape of the Springs. And it hits you in just the right place, giving a voice to the lesser represented American working class just striving to get by.
It's a story of all kinds of endurance. And whether or not the conclusion leaves you satisfied, the stories of perseverance and grit are enough to keep this one with you.
Hands on a Hardbody continues through April 14 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Tickets are available at www.fac.coloradocollege.edu/tickets.
Photos by Jeff Kearney