HANDS ON A HARDBODYBook by Doug Wright
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Music by Trey Anastasio & Amanda Green
Directed by Terri Hagar Scherer
Choreography by Monet Lerner
Musical Direction by Bryce Biffle
Set Design by Hugh Scherer
Costume Design by Kass Prince & Madeleine Goodpaster
Sound Design by Bear Hamilton
Lighting Design by Martin Mussey
Associate Direction by Leah Clark
Stage Management by Rose Anne Holman
Greg Phillips: J. D.
Lauren Foley: Kelli
Craig Boleman: Benny
Keith Warren: Greg
Sam Bullington: Chris
Brandon Bailey: Ronald
Lisa Wash Bacon/Monet Lerner: Heather
Noelle Salter: Virginia
Ben Phillips/Blake Rodgers: Mike
Erin Maher Montgomery: Cindy
Kevin Solis: Jesus
Caroline Rivera: Norma
Kimberly Smith: Janis
Greg Kozakis: Frank
Larry France: Don
Rose Anne Holman: Dr. Stokes
Reviewed Performance: 7/21/2017
Reviewed by Chris Hauge, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
This was my wife Alice’s suggestion for the first line of my review after we had seen Friday night’s performance of the musical “Hands on a Hardbody” at Runway Theatre in Grapevine. It is a refrain from one of the show’s songs and I must say it sums up my feelings as well. I felt joy in the Lord. I felt longing for a better life and a brighter future. I felt desire for something that could change a person's destiny. All of this from a musical about a contest where the winner of a brand-new truck is determined by ten people standing around it with their hands on it until all but one drop out.
According to the Director's notes, this wonderful show had its beginning with a contest set up as a publicity stunt at Jack Long’s Nissan dealership in Longview, TX. The contest ran from 1992-2005 and was filmed as a documentary in 1995. The film was released in 1997 and when I saw it I fell in love with it. I was amused and inspired by the story of ordinary people risking it all for a dream. Dallas playwright Doug Wright wrote the book for the musical based on the documentary and it had a short Broadway run in 2013. Thankfully it found its way to Grapevine.
I have attended two other Runway Theatre shows in the past and have been astounded how well they utilize the limited space they have for sets. As you walk into the theatre for this show you step straight into the lot of a car dealership. And greeting you is the star of the show Ruby Rae, the 1997 red Nissan hardbody truck of the title. Called a hardbody by Datsun (later Nissan) for its double walked bed and overall construction, Ruby is the object of desire for our ten intrepid contestants. Mounted on skates she is rotated, danced on and pounded on throughout the night. Ruby is a real trouper (and she could be yours for the cost of a $5 raffle ticket).
Also greeting the audience quite believably is Mike Ferris the dealership manager. NOTE: Some roles are double cast. At Friday’s performance the role was perfectly played by Blake Rodgers. (Double cast in the role is Ben Phillips). Mike welcomes you to the contest and moves through the crowd trying to get audience members to trade in their present ride for a new 1997 Nissan. Mr. Rodgers is extremely effective in the part and provides a great entry into the show.
A local radio personality, Frank (Greg Kozakis) comes in and announces the judges of the contest, Mike and dealership business manager Cindy (Erin Maher Montgomery). Then the contestants enter and are introduced.
There is Benny (Craig Boleman), the winner of a truck the previous year and full of the swagger and cockiness of a survivor. J. D. (Greg Phillips) is the oldest of the contestants, recovering from a job ending accident with his wife Virginia (Noelle Salter) there as nurse and cheerleader, willing to endure the pain to win the prize. Young Kelli (Lauren Foley) is there in hopes of escaping life in Longview as is good-looking Greg (Keith Warren), unemployed and seeing possible hope in a life with Kelli. Tall, silent Chris (Sam Bullington) is an ex-marine and combat vet; Ronald (Brandon Bailey) is a young man with a plan that is poorly plotted out; Pretty Heather (Played Friday by Lisa Wash Bacon. Also cast in the part is Monet Lerner) intends on using her beauty and sex-appeal to steer the contest her way; Jesus (Kevin Solis) has a scholarship to Texas A & M and sees the truck as part of his plan to become a vet; Wearing headphones full of praise music and having a heart filled with the joy of the Lord, Norma (Caroline Rivera) sees winning Ruby Rae as part of God’s plan of provision: And last but certainly not least is Janis (Kimberly Smith), a no-nonsense woman who says what she thinks and with the support and love of her tattooed and adoring husband (Larry France) takes what Life throws at her and comes up smiling.
The Playwright has provided these people with back stories which the documentary was unable to give us. Each of them is dealing with their past and are living in an economic downturn which makes their futures murky at best. This contest offers hope-transportation to a job, a way to take kids to Church and a husband to his new place of employment, a risky chance at saving the car dealership and a path for each of them to have, as one of the song puts it, “…a piece of the pie”. For a brief period, winning this truck means everything to everyone there.
Director Terri Hager Scherer has assembled a wonderful cast and directed them at a quick pace to keep the laughter and, sometimes, the tears to flow naturally and seemingly without effort. Terri and choreographer Monet Lerner are to be commended for their use of a space dominated by a truck. Characters dance around it and in the truck bed and on the top and hood and it’s all just a lot fun to watch. The stage pictures never become static and all movement is natural and relevant to the show. In addition, the costumes, designed by Kass Prince and Madeleine Goodpaster and the set, designed by Hugh Scherer with artistic assistance by Judy Blalock, complement each other firmly put us on a car lot in in 1997 Longview, including an office for the dealership and a space for the band.
The cast is very strong and leads us through the alliances formed, the friendships and romances that begin and the bond of pain and longing which unites all ten of the contestants. As played by Craig Boleman, Benny is arrogant, as a winner should be, yet ably and poignantly shows the desperation which lies beneath the surface. Lisa Wash Bacon conveys a sassiness and a knowledge of how far sex can take her in the world as Heather. She also hilariously displays the results of using a “cheat” to obtain her goal.
Greg Phillips and Noelle Salter, as J. D. and Virginia, tug at our hearts as man who lost his job and struggles physically with pain and internally with his identity as a man and as his wife who feels alone and neglected and fears for their marriage. Lauren Foley and Keith Warren naturally and easily show the budding relationship between Kelli and Greg and their longing to be free. Brandon Bailey as Ronald clearly and winningly displays a young man’s tendency to love and plan unwisely, while Sam Bullington as Chris, with close-cropped hair and aviator sunglasses, quietly struggles with his demons just below the surface. As the young man hoping for the truck to take him on the road to better tomorrow, Kevin Solis is earnest, and heartwarmingly likable.
The character of Norma is filled with the Holy Spirit and Caroline Rivera portrays her without comment or irony. Norma is the real deal; a caring, compassionate human being who knows that God will provide for her family. Ms. Rivera’ Norma is among the most compelling people in the show. Erin Maher Montgomery makes Cindy a prim and proper southern lady with rock hard integrity. Janis and Don (Kimberly Smith and Larry France) are the characters from the documentary I had hoped would make it into play. They are eccentric but as played by Ms. Smith they are not hicks or portrayed as stupid. They face life as a couple and if they see something as being unfair they are not afraid to point it out. Also, this couple has a song with a verse involving air-conditioning that is worth the price of admission.
The songs cover the gamut From full production numbers (“Human Drama Kind of thing”, “Joy of the Lord”, “Keep Your Hands on It”) to Intimate songs of relationship and reminiscence (“Alone With Me”, “If She Don’t Sleep”, “Used to Be”). The cast is vocally strong and for the most part the harmonies were very tight. There were a few times things did not mesh but that will sort itself out as the cast get more performances under their belt. I do wish to single out Craig Boleman who sings with confidence and skill. Brandon Bailey uses his lovely voice to show Ronald’s change from anchorless young man to a compassionate adult. And the heavenly choir must be missing a member because Caroline Rivera sings with the voice of an angel.
If I have any quibble with the show it is with the script. Two contestants drop out in first act which leaves 7 to remove in second act and each contestant gets a sung dramatic reveal. This causes the second act to be a little top heavy in the drama department and makes it seem to drag slightly. Also, two of the songs relied very heavily on clichés and I found them a touch trite. I will say that Sam Bullington in “Stronger” and Kevin Solis in “Born in Laredo” sang with such passion and sincerity that they almost overcame the problem altogether.
These are minor complaints. In “Hands on a Hardbody,” Runway Theatre has given us a wonderfully entertaining and honestly inspiring show. A thank you to the cast, crew and the countless volunteers who made it possible. So, come to Grapevine and spend some time with some memorable people. You’ll be very glad you did. And who knows, if you purchase a raffle ticket you may get Ruby Rae the truck as a souvenir.
Feel the joy!
N. Dooley St., Grapevine, TX 76051
July 21 – August 13, 2017
For ticket prices, dates, location, parking, etc.:
(817) 488-4842 or runwaytheatre.com