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6/14/2024        HANDS ON A HARDBODY     Marietta Theatre Company


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(Bias Alert:  I have worked with – and remain friends with -- Marietta Theatre Company, Director Zac Phelps, and actors Brian Brooks White and John Jenkins and tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses.)


(Plagiarism Alert:  You will find sections of this copied whole cloth from my 2015 review of Aurora Theatre’s production of this show.)


So, this really happened.  In 1995, a contest in Longview TX pitted a bunch of hopeful folks in an endurance test -- whoever could keep a hand on a pick-up truck the longest, would win the truck.  The contest landed on a "Something for Nothing" episode of NPR's "This American Life" and a movie documentary in 1997, which can be viewed on Apple-TV+ iTunes.


And way back in 2011, someone turned the whole thing into a musical.  What can possibly go wrong?  I mean, with a cast figuratively "glued" to a truck, blocking and choreography will certainly be a challenge.  New York Musicals traditionally turn Texas eccentrics into caricature objects of scorn.  The show closed on Broadway after less than a month.  I mean how good could this have been?

The answer is, extremely good.  Set up as an off-center slice of Americana, this show quickly becomes an emotional roller coaster ride through the soul of America.  The Texas-coated score is filled with gems and toe-tapping anthems and even an a cappella tent-raising gospel number (of sorts).  This is, by far, one of the best musicals of the season as it was when I poured these same praises on Aurora Theatre’s 2015 production.


The plot is as expected -- ten Texas hopefuls hang onto a candy-apple red 1992 Nissan pick-up truck until only one is left.  That's about it.  There are a few diversions with the families of some of the contestants, with the manager of the car lot, with the radio announcer "calling the game."  But the heart and soul are the stories of the ten contestants.  Sure, they start out similar -- desperate folks grasping at straws of dignity and success.  But once they open up to us (and each other), they are a veritable cross-section of America -- the PTSD-ridden vet, the spouse of an unemployed man relying on prayer to get her through, the young folks dreaming for a start in an economy that scorns dreams, the old guy recently debilitated by injury, the young beauty willing to bend the rules to win, the guy trying to recreate his previous victory, the empty-nester enjoying a moment in the sun, the LatinX-American fighting preconceived notions.


And Great Scott (!), they all create such memorable characters and musical moments, that I almost wish there were more.  I'm wallowing in as many YouTube excerpts as I can even as I write this (which explains why it's taking so durn long), and I've added links to a couple of favorites at the bottom.  I do have to give a shout out to "I Feel the Joy," a faux-gospel number that begins with Norma (Jaylyn Bentley) "losing it" in a fit of hysterical laughter, only to cut loose with a joyous, foot-stomping, truck-body-slamming rouser (that also highlights Director/Choreographer Zac Phelps’ clever "one-hand-tied-to-the-truck" choreography) that bumps directly into "Stronger," Chris Alvaro's (John Jenkins’) PTSD-driven lament to his wartime horrors and failed marriage.  I also loved "Used to Be," J.D. Drew's (Brian Brooks White) elegy for the Longview of his youth ("Now this town is just a collection of an old man's memories" / "If it looks the same where'e'r you roam, Tell me, how do you know when you've gotten home?") in a country where every town has the same national chain "Wal-Marts and Applebees and Starbucks  and Mickey-D's."  When this is coupled with "I'm Gone," the young folks' anthem of "escape" and "following your dream," you know we're dealing with a wide range of hopes and regrets and victories and failures.


The genius of this piece is that, as you get to know each of the contestants, as they bicker and connect, and snarl, you begin to hope that somehow, they all win.  The irony is that the show is constructed so that each "loser" "lets go" at the exact moment they win a personal victory of sorts.  Yes, there is a winner (to my mind, the least likely to win), and the final time is almost a day longer than the real-life contest (over 90 hours).  But the getting there is what this show is all about.  With a Book by Doug Wright (Quills / I Am My Own Wife) and music and lyrics by Trey Anastasia (the indy band "Phish") and Amanda Green (Bring it On), this play is, for me, a near-perfect experience.


This is a true ensemble show in the best possible way.  There are far too many characters for any one to stick out as a "lead," and even the early "dropouts" return to give support to those who remain, all joining up in the "Keep Your Hands On It" finale (a beautiful anthem to never letting go of your dreams).  In addition to those already cited, the contestants included Shane Murphy as the previous victor returning for another go, Isabella Engberg as the young UPS worker with "dreams of places far away," Luke Kasner as a young guy still looking for a path in life, Nicholas Rodrigues as Jesus, the guy from Laredo who DOESN'T NEED A GREEN CARD (!!!), Jamorad Keith whose "problem" won't keep him from helping the others, Sydney Whote as Heather, whose "cheating" comes back to haunt, and Montana Ludlow as, the snarky matron whose stamina is almost as strong as her sense of right-and-wrong.  Camille Fairbanks, Chandler Harrelson, Margaret Anne Vowell, Andrew Maxwell, and Zachary Grizzle play assorted spouses and car dealers and radio hosts and hangers-on.  It's a well-tuned ensemble with more energy-per-gallon than most musicals this year.


Long-time friend-of-the-website Zac Phelps brings his fertile imagination to the fore and directs (and choreographs) his cast to a well-waxed gleaming shine. The obstacles for this show, which seem insurmountable given the constraints of the story, are overcome as smoothly as a newly-oiled clutch shifting into fifth gear.  I was at first surprised Mr. Phelps let each character have their “moment” away from the truck, stepping away into a mindscape focused on freedom (and, to his credit, Mr. Phelps nails the conceit by having everyone let go when one lets go).  But, once started, the idea works, and makes the actual letting-go moments still strong and heart-breaking.  And, of course, kudos to the entire production team for getting a REAL truck onto the Theatre in the Square stage and making it shine and spin and (not quite) steal the show!


Not to belabor the metaphor, but this show is a monster truck firing on all cylinders.


So, what is your dream, your goal, the "hardbody you'll never release?"  No matter how far you are from Texas, I daresay one character -- perhaps all of them -- have an aspect-of-story that rings true, that touches you, that tickles your sense of humor, that appeals to your aspirations.


I loved this play. A lot!   and I hope you do, too!

     -- Brad Rudy (   #RoadsideAmerica  #MTCHardbody)






Keala Settle and Original Cast Singing "Joy of the Lord"


Keith Carradine singing "Used to Be"


Kyle Dean Massey singing "Stronger"

Allison Case & Van Hughes singing "I'm Gone"

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