Theater review: Hands on a Hardbody at Asheville Community Theatre
Asheville Community Theatre in the past few seasons has made a specialty of recent musicals that dramatize the lives of ordinary, working class people, and they’ve got another triumph on the boards with the current Hands on a Hardbody. The extreme swell of warm feelings at the show’s conclusion is well earned by two acts of catchy, confessional songs in which a series of Texans pour out their hearts.
You may never have heard of this show, but fear not: You’ll come to love it. The premise is both intriguing and seemingly un-musical: Ten down-on-their-luck folks have been selected by lot to compete for a brand-new Nissan pickup truck. All they have to do is keep one (gloved) hand on the vehicle at all times, without sleep or sitting or even leaning, for days on end. (They get a 15-minute break every six hours.)
The setup is not unlike A Chorus Line, which ACT brilliantly staged in 2015: Those gathered desperately want to be named winners, and each gets a moving song (or two) to dramatize their motivations.
The show is introduced by a past winner of the contest, Benny, a self-confident schemer played by Paul Scott Gerber, with the self-aware song “Human Drama Kind of Thing.” (The tuneful country pop music is by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish, in collaboration with lyricist Amanda Green; the book is by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright.)
Gerber has a country-boy-next-door stage presence reminiscent of Cody Johnson or Luke Bryan and vocal chops to match, and he immediately energizes the show. You wouldn’t think there’d be much movement to Hands, given the premise and the actual Nissan truck mounted on a pivot onstage, but director Jerry Crouch and choreographer Shari Azar keep the show buzzing along and come up with a number of creative ways to weave the players around the “hardbody.”
Several plot lines also thread through the inherent appeal of a contest-by-elimination. The sponsoring dealership has a manager of dubious ethics, Mike (Dillon Giles), who grabs the spotlight with one of the show’s most clever tunes, “Burn That Bridge,” sung with the young female contestant he has his eyes (and more) on, Heather (Stephanie Marzuola). Meanwhile, Benny strikes up an alliance with fellow contestant J.D. (a poignant Dan Baechtold), an unemployed oil rig worker recovering from a bad accident. (Keith Carradine played J.D. on Broadway.)
Also paired up are two younger contestants, Greg (Andy Thompson) and Kelli (Sara Terry), who share their dream of escaping to California in the upbeat “I’m Gone.” Then there’s the oldest contestant, Janis (Linda Pannullo), whose husband Don (Bob Kelso) is on hand, sympathetically representing the archetypal blue collar couple devoted to each other (“If She Don’t Sleep”) and to conspiracy theories (“It’s a Fix”).
The 20-some songs and reprises are the bulk of the show, which has minimal dialogue, and while some are more memorable than others, none is a dud. Highlights include the ensemble’s “If I Had This Truck” (this show’s “I Hope I Get It”); “My Problem Right There,” an entertaining litany of complaints from contestant Ronald (an animated Jay Allen Ponton); and the lively, Benny-led Act One closer, “Hunt With the Big Dogs.”
Of course, any musical set in the South in recent decades needs a gospel show-stopper, and Hardbody has the spirited “Joy of the Lord,” delivered with delightful divinity by Lau Magie as Norma (a role originated by Keala Settle, best known as the bearded lady in “The Greatest Showman”).
Rounding out the cast are Adam Lentini as a marine who may have PTSD (and has a surprisingly touching moment in Act Two); Jay Mitchell as the radio host covering the contest; Audrey Wells as J.D.’s over-stressed wife; and Aaron Ybarra as Jesus, who angrily takes on anti-Latin prejudice in “Born in Laredo.”
The simple but perfectly rendered dealership set is by Julie Ross, lit by Rob Bowen (whose lighting cues nicely delineate the moments of fantasy away from the truck), with well-balanced sound by Ron Whittemore and Adam Cohen. McKinney Gough did the working class costumes, while Jean Fullbright supplied the props. Anne Garren is the stage manager, and Jill Summers is the technical director.
The unseen and unsurpassed six-person live band is led by musical director Lynda Shuler, who clearly has mind-melded with director Crouch to generate this show’s magical musical mood. Crouch has been directing musicals for decades, but I’m betting this is his first time (and probably last) blocking a spinning pickup truck. Once again, Crouch deserves high praise for coaxing professional-level performances from a non-professional cast, and for knowing exactly how to hook the audience’s emotions along the way.
Indeed, all of ACT merits kudos for selecting this under-appreciated gem that’s so well-suited to a community-based production. These days, every performance of every show in this country gets a standing ovation, but I’m betting most Hardbody audience members found themselves on their feet this time without even thinking about it.
Hands on a Hardbody runs Friday-Sunday through June 30. For details and tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org.
(Photos: Studio Misha Photography, courtesy of Asheville Community Theatre)