HANDS ON A HARDBODY (Second Review)Book by Doug Wright
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green
Granbury Theatre Company
Director: Shane Brooks
Assistant Director: Matt Beutner
Music Director: Jamie Deel
Choreographer: Brittany Jenkins
Scenic Designer: Kerri Pavelick
Costume Designer: Emily Warwick
Lighting Designer: Kalani Morrissette
Sound Designer: Kyle Hoffman
J.D. Drew: Jay Lewis
Kelli Mangrum: Tiffany Hyatt
Benny Perkins: Brian Lawson
Greg Wilhote: Andrew Bullard
Chris Alvaro: Charles Mason
Ronald McCowan: Damond Cobin
Heather Stovall: Stephanie Simmons
Virginia Drew: Amanda Williams Ware
Mike Ferris: Tim Herndon
Cindy Barnes: Mia Cree Washington
Jesus Peña: Michael Bush
Norma Valverde: Emily Warwick
Janis Curtis: Drenda Lewis
Frank Nugent: Nathan Early
Don Curtis: Greg Doss
Dr. Stokes: Taylor Ray Donaldson
Reviewed Performance: 6/1/2018
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I do get personal invitations from the Artistic Directors, Executive Directors, or Directors of a show that has already been reviewed by my publication to still come see their show as their guest. If my schedule allows it, I do attend. But I do not write a second review. But when I see something THIS good, well attention must be paid! (A line I stole from the musical 1776).
I had never seen HANDS ON A HARDBODYl, but having seen last season two of their productions, GTC has produced some of the best theater in the DFW area.
Last season, GTC’s SHREK and JOESPH….DREAMCOAT both earned nominations for Best Musical of the year at the 19th Annual COLUMN Awards. Friday evening, I saw what most likely could-and SHOULD- be their fourth Best Musical nod in next year’s COLUMN Awards race with their emotionally charged, vocal powerhouse production of HANDS ON A HARDBODY (HOAH).
The kudos begin right out of the auto dealership parking lot (pun intended) with a slick, professional sounding, live five-piece band placed right on stage conducted by Musical Director Jamie Deel. On the stage there is a real Nissan truck planted center stage that the casts turn around within the musical numbers. Kerri Pavelick’s scenic design displays the gravity of a hot, humid, decaying Texas small town that has hit hard financial times. The set is smartly lit by Kalani Morrissette.
Brittany Jenkins’ original choreography works like magic around that truck. The cast can never take their hands off that metal, and she does amazing dance creations to make that work and visually look exciting!
You can truly see the flaws and strengths of a director when they have a small cast and just one set to work with in musicals. Shane Brooks direction is a complete triumph from beginning to end. He keeps his cast enshrouded in truth, not falling into caricature Southerners. His staging and blocking never stagnates or falls into that slumber that some directors do with small casts. And remember, he has them stuck to a truck! I would constantly watch the other cast members when another had a big solo number. They were always in character. Mr. Brooks had a herculean challenge as a director with HOAH, he not only met the challenge he far exceeded it!
As for the cast, I could write a paragraph for every single member of this brilliant, incredible, dynamic company. Their vocals, as soloists and as a full company are astounding. But to be honest, that’s one of the sublime qualities that I know I will get when I see musicals done at GTC. But now with HOAH they have raised the bar, in some of the numbers, they begin to sing acapella-and stay acapella for quite a few measures-and it is glorious! There is lush harmonies and full voice. As actors, their chemistry is perfection. They connect as friends, a blooming romance, console each other, show respect, etc. I was deeply moved on how some of the cast rallied up and supported the Latino contestant against the racist jarbs from another.
Suffice to say that every single one of these talented thespians make this musical soar into the hearts of everyone in that audience.
However, special plaudits must go to Andrew Bullard (Greg Wilhote), who provided the comedic scene stealing performance of the show as the unemployed teen who falls in love. His facial expressions were down right hilarious, but he also tugged at the audience’s heart in the second act. Damond Cobin (Ronald McCowan) who gave the audience the first vocal show stopping number of the evening with “My Problem Right There”. His vocal riffs at the end were spot on. For Act II, McCowan, Charles Mason, and Emily Warwick provide splendiferous vocals with a reprise of “Joy of the Lord” (acapella!) that was awe-inspiring. Jay Lewis delivered his best performance that I have seen him do with his marvelous portrayal as J.D. Drew. Stephanie Simmons (Heather Stovall) and Tim Herndon (Mike Ferris) had a terrific vocal smash duet with “Burn That Bridge”. Michael Bush’s performance as Jesus Pena displayed such great dignity and innocence, and his solo “Born in Laredo” with its compelling lyrics, struck a chord with many in the audience. So much so that there was a beat of complete silence when he finished before the audience applauded loudly. Plus, his focus to the pain on his feet for wearing boots for so long was such a smart actor’s choice! Emily Warwick yet again brings those all mighty, mega force vocal pipes to her performance as Norma Valverde. But she too impressed me deeply with her acting talents as a shy religious wife and mother. Not preachy, not whining. But honest and giving. She had the audience’s heart right there in her fanny bag! Warwick brings the house down with “Joy of the Lord”. But, when you see her name in any Playbill in a show, you know this girl is gonna SING!
But there were two performances that completely floored me not only by their vocal work, but what they also brought with their acting craft. That would be Brian Lawson (Benny Perkins) and Charles Mason (Greg Wilhote).
Mr. Lawson is Benny Perkins, a man who has won at this contest before, however we find out his wife has left him, and he wants to win this truck at all costs. Lawson has several numbers, but it is his Act II solo, “God Answered My Prayers” that he shows the broken, brutal honesty of this man’s reality. He digs deep into the lyrics that reveals to the audience the pain, agony, and loneliness of the empty shell of this man. Lawson displays new layers of his craft by emotionally diving into the darker waters of dramatic intensity, resulting in him achieving stellar success as an actor in this role. But Lawson also displays his excellent comedic timing and delivery throughout the evening in both the book and the score. The book bends in a way that it can lead an actor to take this role and cause him to slip into a one note stereotype, but Lawson completely avoids that and instead delivers his finest performance that earns a standing ovation!
When actors must simply just react, have no dialogue, no music, and rely on subtext and subtle honesty, that’s when I start to focus on them more. Because that’s when you see if they have the knowledge, tools, the stage presence, and especially the “it” factor. Charles Mason has all that as the aloof and apathic veteran Greg Wilhote. He never says a word for most of Act I, but I kept watching him, and his characterization hinted at tiny cracks of something wasn’t right. But slowly you could see the cracks get bigger. I’ll give you a clue, observe him when the musical number “Joy of the Lord” starts and keep glancing back at him. It is riveting to see this wonderfully talented actor’s subtext and emotion reveal itself. This leads to my personal favorite musical number of the entire evening, “Stronger”. Mason possesses a commanding tenor voice which he belts to the back wall. His muscular vibrato supports his notes so that his vocals glide on it with no break or crack. Mason peels the lyrics to fully understand the scars and horrors of PTSD. I was riveted by his commitment and emotional intensity to his characterization. Mason’s work are the performances I look forward to in discovering every season. Charles Mason’s performance is already one of the best performances I’ve this season given by an actor, and one I know I won’t forget.
Granbury has a precious diamond sitting dead center in their community that dazzles and shines a huge spotlight on their artistic contributions to the DFW area, and that is the Granbury Theatre Company! Last night was my third visit, and in my critic handbook-they have yet another critically acclaimed hit with their production of HANDS ON A HARDBODY.
Sadly, they have ONLY TWO PEFORMANCES LEFT! Saturday June 3 at 3:00pm and 7:30pm. Worth the drive? Hell yes Dallas folks! Oh, so SO worth it!
Granbury Theatre Company
Playing May 11 - June 3, 2017
at the Granbury Opera House
133 E. Pearl Street, Granbury, TX 76048
Performances run May 11–June 3. Tickets range from $20 to $30.
Tickets may be purchased online at ticketstothecity.com or by calling 817.579.0952.