Review: High-Energy HANDS ON A HARDBODY is Enjoyable, but Uneven at the Garden Theatre

By: Feb. 04, 2016

Let's get this out of the way first, the "hardbody" in the title is a truck, a Nissan pickup truck to be exact; and while the name of the musical, HANDS ON A HARDBODY, might sound a teensy bit risqué, it is filled with encouraging messages and life-affirming themes set to a high-energy, modern score. Presented by TheatreWorks Florida, the musical runs through February 21st at the Garden Theatre, and features an extremely game and talented cast, who unfortunately is not used in a way that comes close to maximizing their immense collective talent. The musical by Doug Wright (book), Amanda Green (music and lyrics), and Trey Anastasio of the band Phish (music) is based on a 1997 documentary of the same name about a Texas contest in which the person who keeps his or her hand on a truck the longest, wins it. While the show's ensemble construction gives nearly every cast-member multiple moments to vocally shine, it seems like a substantial amount of them have been shoehorned into roles that don't exactly match up with their particular vocal ranges, resulting in fairly regular pitch issues. That not-so minor issue aside, the show is a joyous, toe-tapping celebration of all the things, good and bad, that make people special.

Justin J. Scarlat
Photo Credit: Steven Miller Photography

In this fictionalized version of the "Hands on a Hardbody" contest, 10 individuals are vying for the prize in smalltown Longview, Texas; which has been hit particularly hard by the recession. Each contestant has his or her own reason for wanting, and in some cases needing, the truck; whether it is to get back to work, to provide for their families, or to get out of town. As the fairly straight-forward contest starts, the competitors bond and feud becoming more emotional as the physical and mental tedium of standing around for days on end with a hand on a car begins to get to them.

HANDS ON A HARDBODY's deceptively difficult score features tunes with many different musical influences, including country, rock, pop, showtunes, gospel, and more. As evidenced in the opening number "Human Drama Kind of Thing," the show is at its best when the cast is singing together with powerful and glorious harmonies. There isn't a clunker in the score, as they are all upbeat and fairly well integrated. However, you will likely be hard-pressed to remember a melody long after you leave the theater.

While Scott A. Cook's direction doesn't always seem to get to the heart of the show's individual characters, his choreography is almost uniformly creative and fun. Creating multiple dance numbers in which the ensemble can't take their hands off of a truck is no easy task, but Cook and company turn it into a fun and inventive challenge.

Benny Perkins (played by a wonderfully voiced Justin J. Scarlat) is a former "Hands on a Hardbody" champion looking to reclaim his former glory, and forms a grudging alliance with JD Drew (Michael Colavolpe), the oldest competitor, who is still recovering from a devastating on-job accident. Colavolpe, who bears a striking resemblance to Keith Carradine, who originated the role on Broadway, is earnest and sympathetic from the outset, and shows off a tender voice throughout.

Desiree Perez. Photo Credit: Steven Miller Photography

Desiree Perez, as devout Christian Norma Valverde, delivers undoubtedly the best vocals of the show. Her song "Joy of the Lord," which begins as a fit of uncontrollable, delirious laughter will absolutely bring a smile to your face, and just might bring a tear to your eye.

Kristoffer Cleto turns in another of the show's most well-rounded performances as aspiring veterinarian Jesus Pena. He is able to craft an instantly likeable character and displays fantastic vocal ability as well.

While her songs are either too low for her range, or her affected character voice, Beki Herrbach is magnetic as Janis Curtis. Along with her ever-supportive husband Don (Aaron Atkinson), Janis is barely scraping by, but the life and vitality that Herrbach gives her means that it's nearly impossible to take your eyes off of her; and when she's given a chance to really belt, watch out.

Other standouts in the cast include Karissa Barber as the sultry Heather, Kat Myers who shows off a great voice as Kelli, Gabe Friedman as wannabe stuntman Greg, Blake Aburn as recently returned Marine Chris, Jamaal Solomon as a contestant who comes back for more, and Candy Marilyn Heller, the dealership's stressed and overworked PR chief.

While the show suffered from consistent mic issues, the rest of the technical production was strong. James F. Beck's set and projection designs, coupled with Cori Blythe's lighting, created a wonderfully evocative world for this story to be set, and the on-stage band was fun, getting in on the action with a few jingles of their own.

HANDS ON A HARDBODY strives to be a character study, and a metaphor for life, in which a group of people all vie for the same prize, all but one leaving broken and disappointed. While the show is extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking in the moment, like its score, it is not particularly memorable after the fact. That being typed, this creative production makes the most of the material to create an enjoyable night at the theatre. To get your tickets visit the Garden Theatre's website or call 407-877-GRDN (4736).

Did HANDS ON A HARDBODY get your motor running? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter.

Banner Image: HANDS ON A HARDBODY Cast. Photo Credit: Steven Miller Photography

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this article swapped the names of two performers and/or their characters.)

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