BWW Reviews: OMAHA Lays Winning HANDS ON A HARDBODY at Omaha Community Playhouse
You might wonder how a musical about ten Texans competing to win a Nissan truck by being the last person standing with hands on it could be interesting. There can be little action since everyone is stuck to the truck by white cotton gloves. Yet, this musical is not about outward action so much as it is about inward struggle. These are varied characters with diverse personalities. The truck is the vehicle that ties them together. These white-gloved hands are what hang onto hope. I promise you that it is interesting!
Omaha Community Playhouse previewed their production of Hands on a Hardbody last night to an appreciative audience. Running February 13 through March 22, it is based on a documentary about an actual contest in Longview, Texas. The musical opened on Broadway in 2013, scoring three Tony nominations, but closed one month later. With book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Amanda Green, it has a down home Texas flavor with seasonings of country, rock, and gospel with a pinch of Latin music. Musical director Mitch Fuller is up to the challenge.
The cast, ably directed by Hilary Adams, is varied in individual strengths and weaknesses but is strong as a unit. Jeffrey Pierce, who plays the former winner and 40-something Benny Perkins, and Mark Thornburg, as the oldest contestant J D Drew, are my winners in the acting and vocal categories. Of all the characters, they are the most rounded and heartfelt. Jeff in particular shows a wide range from cocky arrogance to hurtful sorrow. You have to like him even if he is a bit of a bully. Jeff (who played the father in OCP's Next to Normal) has become one of my favorites on the Omaha stage for his diversity and his remarkable voice. Mark Thornburg (perhaps best remembered for his incredible performances as Tevye in local productions of Fiddler on the Roof) portrays a stoic husband who superficially seems to be tired of his wife Virginia (beautifully played by Marguerite Bennett.) Their duet "Alone With Me" is heartrending in a good way. You feel for them. You cheer them on.
Rebecca Noble, as the devout churchgoer, Norma Valverde, is endearing in her devotion, but you wonder if her faith is genuine without her MP3 player. Then you see her compassion for the other contestants and you believe her. She's the real thing. Becky's voice is strong and well suited to the rousing "Joy to the Lord." This number and Nik Whitcomb's (Snickers-loving, afraid-of-the-rain Ronald McCowan) performance of "My Problem Right There" are the best foot-stomping moments of the production.
Newcomer Huma Haq (as young UPS worker Kelli Mangrum) perks up ears with her fresh, soulful vocals. There is a slight touch of show choir about her movements, but she is engaging. Her duet with Benjamin Allgire (would-be Hollywood stuntman Greg Wilhote) is one of my favorites. Chris Ebke's (bitter ex-soldier Chris Alvaro) solid vocals resonate throughout the theater, leaving you wanting more. Michael Castillo, as the Texas born Jesus Pena, adds a touch of authenticity with his mild mannered responses to racial remarks and his lovely rendition of "Born in Laredo."
Other moments that must be mentioned are Sara Planck's (the rough-edged Janis Curtis) fierce faces as she decries the competition as a fix, and Megan Ingram's (constantly-concerned-with-her-appearance Heather Stovall) meltdown. Patrick Wolfe double-hats as Janis' husband and number one fan and as the quirky Doctor Stokes. Good ole boy radio announcer Frank Nugent (Christopher Scott) keeps progress on track with his jingles that announce the elimination of another contestant, while the Nissan sales team, played by Matthew Bross and Sarah Query, provide a credible off to the side tension in their disputes over contest ethics. Most of their disputes take place in the upstairs office space that Jim Othuse has designed behind center stage, which is dominated by the Nissan truck. Running the perimeter of the theater are pennant flags, giving the audience a feeling of inclusion. Lighting is effectively dimmed and brightened to allude to passing time.
Michelle Garrity has a challenge choreographing within the constraints of the small theater and the need to keep most of her characters linked to the truck, but she pulls it off. Contestants weave in and out of each other, spin the truck around on its rollers, and somehow manage to dance, never losing their connection.
This musical may not be long remembered for its songs or dance numbers or flashy costumes. Its strength is found in the people...their reasons for wanting to win this truck, the relationships they form throughout the competition, and in the way they gradually discover what is really important to them. Benny movingly sings "God Answered My Prayers" which tells us that we don't always get what we ask for, but sometimes we get something better. And in the finale the cast sings "Keep Your Hands On It" as advice to all of us that if you want something (or someone) in life, keep your hands on it.