“Can I do it?” one of the last contestants asks, standing just stage right of the Nissan pickup center stage, his left hand touching the truck’s body. As he looks out into the night, a young voice high up on the hill cries out, “Yes,” before the next line can be said onstage. In the audience filling the plastic lawn chairs and on the wooden benches cut into the hillside, many people smile or nod their heads in agreement.
That moment just before the last song sums up the power and the glory of Park Playhouse’s Hands on a Hardbody, an improbable hit musical that marks the longtime summer stock organization’s evolution from its semi-pro community theater roots to an adventurous troupe producing musicals smartly directed and performed. Hands on a Hardbody is a leap from the well-known and safe; a critical favorite on Broadway in 2013, this new musical closed before the Tony Awards, despite being nominated in three categories. With its book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright and music by Phish founder Trey Anastasio and Williamstown Theatre Festival-trained Amanda Green, Hands on a Hardbody has the theater and music bona fides to overcome its porn-sounding title.
Based on a 1997 documentary film, Hands on a Hardbody tells the story of 10 struggling Americans in Longview, an East Texas town noteworthy for being “where Karen Silkwood and Matthew McConaughey were born,” as well as for its “three Walmart Superstores . . . a toxic spill . . . and No. 1 in foreclosures in East Texas,” according Cindy Barnes (Meredith Meyers), a struggling but peppy employee of struggling Floyd King’s Nissan. The 10 are chosen in a lottery each year, and whoever keeps a hand (“no leaning”) on the “Aztec red Nissan Hardbody Pick Up” the longest wins it; the record is 77 hours.
It’s not a contest for the weak of body or soul.
As the show spins along through its 18 songs—music director Brian Axford and his seven fellow bandmates, especially violinists Holly Larson and cellist Will Hayes, impressively handle the wide range of music genres from rock, swing, rhythm and blues, country ballad, and gospel—the back story of each contestant, and their (almost) always supportive spouses, plays out. It’s a true ensemble musical, led by two Actors Equity professionals, Don Meehan as Benny Perkins, a returning champion who opens the show, and Steven Fletcher as J.D. Drew, who sings the ironic crux of the show: “Funny ain’t it? American dream, Japanese car.” But the other eight contestants have equal weight and moments, as do their spouses. While the movement is limited when the set is primarily a pickup truck that revolves and hands must be on it, there are surprisingly lively numbers, especially Norma’s (Dashira Cortes, the soul of the show) “The Joy of the Lord.” This showstopper starts as an a cappella Gospel belter that soon evolves to involve all 10 contestants beating out the Lord’s rhythm on the pickup, sort of a Blue Man Group-esque homage to soul.
“The Joy of the Lord” is one of many moments that form a surprisingly spiritual spine to Hands on a Hardbody. When the former champion moves from a bigoted, fundamentalist Christian to a true follower of Jesus, something miraculous is going on. For a musical that starts with a capitalist manifesto that people are just commodities to be used for the creating and selling of other commodities–“It’s like the movie Highlander/There can be only one” Benny sings; “Walmarts, Walgreens, and Wendy’s” is J.D.’s refrain—to end with “If you want something/Let your purpose show/Hold it close to you/Don’t you let it go/Let it be your guide/Star of Bethlehem.” As the audience discovers, in Hands on a Hardbody, the answers is always, “Yes.” Go.