Review | Driving the dream: Just keep those “Hands on a Hardbody”

The cast of “Hands on a Hardbody”

Ready to get out, be entertained and enjoy theater again? Of course, you are! Minneapolis Musical Theatre is back with its latest choice for a “rare musical,” a niche for which the company is well known. Hands on a Hardbody, distinctive at the very least for its weirdness in an everyday kind of way, is also laudable for its success in delivering an ordinary-people-accomplishing-the-extraordinary kind of story.

The large, ensemble cast has just one star: a brand new, shiny red Nissan pickup truck – and we’re not talkin’ something built in a theater prop shop. Oh, no. This truck is the real deal, and since it’s so new, it’s still living in a car dealer’s showroom, and that’s where you’ll be going to see it.

Luther Cadillac in Roseville (and that shiny red truck) is all the set we need to imagine the world of this play and immerse ourselves in the lives of the ten people competing to win the truck. All they have to do is keep one hand on its “hardbody” for as long as it takes to be the last one.

Given the initial premise, You might well ask, “What is there to do?” If the conflict is simply who is going to last the longest, the show would flatline well before Act II. However, as it’s populated with memorable characters, with a motivation peculiar to each, there’s more than enough material to drive this wacky plot right off the showroom floor.

I’m going to put this right out there: I figured with New Yorkers commissioned by an acclaimed California theater to musicalize a documentary about down-and-out Texans trying to win a new truck by being the last one to have a “hand on a hardbody” … well, gee … I sense caricature forming before my very eyes. Gotta admit. There is some of that. (“If you can’t run with the big dogs, better stay on the porch with the puppies,” the redneck character Benny Perkins (James Lane) sings.) But Lane also brings his complicated character full circle with some inspired acting in “God Answered My Prayers,” so, yes, there’s more to the story.

Doug Wright’s libretto allows for some fun without disrespecting the character’s unremarkable lives, and doesn’t back away from their hard truths, either. Amanda Green’s lyrics, a wonder in their agility, dance pretty close to silly without dropping over the edge – at least not often. The music by Green and Phish founder Trey Anastasio is quite approachable, even for those who aren’t necessarily into musicals. Pop, rock, country, blues, with a little gospel thrown in … Heck, yeah, you’ll have fun!

So, who are these folks, desperate enough to endure the hot sun, no sleep and worse, in order to win a truck? Norma, played by Christy Johnson, is quickly labeled “the church lady” in the competition for her declaration of multiple prayer chains set in motion to support her. She eventually launches the whole place into a rousing gospel-flavored “Joy of the Lord.” Don Curtis (Steven Ramirez) uses reverse psychology to encourage his wife, Janis (Jenny Ramiriez) in “If She Don’t Sleep,” with a message that could be a tagline for the whole show: “We don’t have to go through this alone.”

Roland Hawkins II delivers an appealing character, Ronald McCowan, particularly in the gently self-effacing, “My Problem Right There.” Cassie Utt as the young, blond and naïve Heather, who has had enough of getting around on her bike, has a dandy musical theater voice, which crackled on “Burn that Bridge” and the “It’s a Fix” reprise. Brandon Cayetano gets some choice lines and the satisfaction of confronting a sad stereotype in his thoughtfully delivered “Born in Laredo.”

Christian Unser, an MMT regular for some time, plays J.D. Drew, who gets to deliver one of the evening’s most appealing tunes, “Used to Be.” This could have been heavy with clichéd nostalgia, but in Unser’s capable hands, its ode to J.D.’s memories of small-town life felt genuinely touching.

I must single out Aly O’Keeffe as Virginia Drew, J.D.’s hovering wife, for the very lovely “Alone With Me.” She has the perfect voice for this beautiful ballad and gave it the sensitivity it deserves.

Sara Pillarzki-Warzeha directs this production; Jean Orbison Van Heel, music director, led a small, live band of capable musicians. Lest you joke, “I’d like to see the dancing in this one” (ha ha), let me say that choreographer Abbi Fern exploited every opportunity to prove that dancing is possible with one hand on a truck, and with the breaks allowed the competitors, the spacious showroom accommodated some good-sized production numbers with everybody dancing, including some of the audience.

If the title sounds familiar, it could be because it’s based on a true story, told to some acclaim in a 1997 documentary film by S.R. Bindler. By the way, you won’t care that much about who wins. They all have their own version of the American dream, and their reasons for not winning are at least as compelling. This makes for an ending that’s a bit anti-climactic, but we leave with the satisfaction that their dreams will live on. So, maybe ours can, too.

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