Wednesday, June 4, 2014

HANDS ON A HARDBODY • New Line Theatre

New Line closes its 23rd season with "Hands on a Hardbody", a regional premiere. The musical is based on a 1997 documentary that follows several contestants vying to win a brand-new Nissan Hardbody truck. The challenger who can keep one hand on the truck for the longest time (no leaning, no squatting) wins it. In an economy that's kicked that crap out of everyone in the small town of Longview, Texas (boasting three Walmart Supercenters), the shiny red truck taking center stage represents a brass ring of sorts for everyone, but only one walks away with the keys.

Playing out over five days on the hot asphalt lot of Floyd King Nissan, this battle of endurance introduces us to ten hopefuls, starting with a cocky Benny Perkins (Jeffrey M. Wright), who won the competition two years earlier, has just enough knowledge of Asian philosophy to make him dangerous, and advises his competitors, "If you can't hunt with the big dogs, stay on the porch with the pups".
Jeffrey M. Wright (Benny Perkins).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Benny forms an alliance with JD Drew (Todd Schaefer), who's  jobless after falling off of an oil rig, and has no business in this demanding contest to begin with, as his devoted wife Virginia (Alison Helmer) keeps reminding him from the sidelines -- at the ready with ice packs and juice boxes. Ronald McCowan, portrayed by a rich, full-voiced Marshall Jennings, has dreams of starting his own business, and this ex-track star thinks a steady stream of snickers bars will sustain him. Greg (Ryan Foizey) and Kelli (Marcy Wiegert) meet and connect during the competition with dreams of escaping Longview for greener pastures, while Mexican-American veterinary student, Jesus Peña (talented newcomer Reynaldo Arceno) wants to sell the truck to help cover his tuition fees. Chris (Luke Steingruby) is recently out of the Marines, grappling with his own issues, and Jesus-loving Norma (Anna Skidis), puts her trust in God to see her through. Skidis's soulful "Joy of the Lord", preceded by a "holy-ghost" inspired fit of laughter, is a standout. A gutsy, raspy-voiced Janis Curtis (Cindy Duggan) suspects there's something not quite above-board going on ("It's a Fix"), and is backed up by her biggest supporter, her cardboard hat-wearing husband, Don (Keith Thompson).
Taylor Pietz (Heather Stovall)
and Mike Dowdy (Mike Ferris).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Heather (Taylor Pietz), whose main concern is staying fresh during the competition, does have a less than innocent acquaintance with the manager of the dealership (Mike Dowdy), and his employee, Cindy (Margeau Baue Steinau), has enough troubles without the legitimacy of the competition being called into question. While they are both hoping this side-show will bring in a much needed boost in sales, New Line fave Zachary Allen Farmer plays Frank Nugent, a corndog eating (you just have to look for it in person…) radio d.j. who's broadcasting the competition.

These rock solid ensemble members sell their individual opportunities to shine, and add strong vocals to a number of songs in the show's country, gospel and rock flavored score, including the harmony-rich "If I Had This Truck". Rob Lippert's scenic design puts the Hardbody front and center with parking lot accents and Kenneth Zinkl's lighting design subtly displays the passing of days. Sarah Porter and Wiegert nicely outfit each small-town Texan with great costumes and Kerrie Mondy is responsible for the sound design. The powerful vocals of the cast test the mics on a couple of occasions, but the band, under Sue Goldford's direction, sounds tight.

Anna Skidis (Norma Valverde)
and Jeffrey M. Wright (Benny Perkins).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Director Scott Miller has a knack for bringing renewed life to musicals, old and new, and "Hardbody" is no exception. Sucking you in from the first extended number, "It's a Human Drama Thing", this show, though relatively static in nature, makes the investment in each character an agreeably compulsory act, and as the field is whittled down to a few, your heart breaks a little each time someone takes their hand off of that truck. Go see it. It's up until the 21st.

Also, lyricist Amanda Green was there on opening night. That was cool. No, I didn't ask for a photo, but yes, I did get an autograph for my program. :)

Cast of New Line's "Hands on a Hardbody".

Book by Doug Wright
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green
Directed by Scott Miller
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through June 21 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm

Zachary Allen Farmer (Frank Nugent).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Reynaldo Arceno (Jesus Peña), Mike Dowdy (Mike Ferris), Cindy Duggan (Janis Curtis), Zachary Allen Farmer (Frank Nugent), Ryan Foizey (Greg Wilhote), Alison Helmer (Virginia Drew), Marshall Jennings (Ronald McCowan), Taylor Pietz (Heather Stovall), Todd Schaefer (JD Drew), Anna Skidis (Norma Valverde), Margeau Baue Steinau (Cindy Barnes), Luke Steingruby (Chris Alvaro), Keith Thompson (Don Curtis), Marcy Wiegert (Kelli Mangrum) and Jeffrey M. Wright (Benny Perkins).

Assistant director, Mike Dowdy; scenic design by Rob Lippert; lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl; sound design by Kerrie Mondy; costume design by Sarah Porter & Marcy Wiegert; props master, Kimi Short; stage manager, Gabe Taylor.

The New Line Band:
Piano/conductor, Sue Goldford; guitar, D. Mike Bauer; cello, Emily Ebrecht; violin, Nikki Glenn; bass, Andrew Gurney; second keyboard, Joel Hackbarth; percussion, Clancy Newell.

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