Americans love contests. How else can you explain the huge numbers of lottery tickets purchased—with extremely low odds of winning? Ditto those Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes entries we get in the mail. Or the promises of those Nigerian schemers on the Internet?
The Lone Star state, it seems, does contests in a supersized way, as evidenced in the musical with a Texas twang and ethos, Hands on a Hardbody, presented as their final production of the 2014-2015 season by 4th Wall Theatre in Bloomfield.
In this musical, with music and lyrics by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green and book by Doug Wright, a motley crew of 10 Texans try to win a brand-new red pick-up truck at Floyd King Nissan of Longview, Texas, by keeping their hands on it the longest. Over the space of two hours, we meet people of a wide variety of ages, backgrounds and dreams who , with lots of prayers, trash talk, small talk, laughter and perseverance try to complete this, to each of them, very important task. Even more over-arching is the idea that "a truck to a Texan is just like his hat" and "the mark of a man."
Based on a 1997 documentary that originally featured 24 contestants, this version of Hands on a Hardbody originated at the La Jolla Playhouse in California before moving to Broadway in 2013, where it ran for 28 previews and 28 performances. Despite its short run, the musical eschews the glitzy sets and costumes usually associate with big musicals and instead focuses on the lives of everyday people facing difficult economic times. Because the actors literally cannot move from the truck, the play is rather static, and after a while, the country rock melodies get touch monotonous. Nevertheless, it's daring and fresh and, in the hands of a talented director and actors, has a charm that's difficult to dismiss.
Director Kate Swan keeps the action moving even if there is very little motion onstage. Danny Arnold is terrifically obnoxious as loud-mouthed, trash-talking Benny Perkins, who won the previous year, only to have his wife drive off with that truck. His most formidable foe is Marisa Cucuzza as Heather Stovall, a hot number who is tarrying with the sales manager Mike Ferris (played with superb desperation by Todd Shumpert) and whose anticipated success may be fixed by that relationship. The third heavy hitter is senior citizen J.D. Drew, played by Howard Fischer with a steely resolve to prove to his nervous wife Virginia (an achingly worried, feeling discarded Christine Orzepowski).
Many of the contestants are unemployed or working for minimum wage. Most notable among these are Jesus Pena (Adrian Rifat) who wants a truck so he can attend veterinary school; Janis Curtis (Jody Freeman Maloy), who is happy even though she and her husband Dan (James Lopez) don't have two cents to rub together. Youngsters UPS-worker Kelli Mangrum (Erin Long) and wannabe stuntman Greg Wilhote (David Maglione) tunefully hope that they can pursue their dreams in California. Representing the Marines, Chris Alvaro (Steven Leshchanka) displays great poignancy in a number entitled "Stronger" while Ronald McCowan (Marcus Turnage) sees a truck as a way to solve all his problems. Rounding out the contestants is big-voiced church lady Norma Valverde (played with great gusto by Julie Galorenzo); her warbling of hymns and prayers, along with her uncontrollable laughter, set her apart from the pack, especially in "Joy of the Lord," which she performs a capella.
Noncontestants include an officious Tom Schopper as Frank Nugent of KYKK radio, who never misses a chance to interview a contestant, and Madison Washer as dealership receptionist Cindy Barnes, tasked with making sure contestants understand (and follow) the rules while constantly reminding her boss that they are far behind last year's sale quotas and the folks in Tennessee are on their heels.
Jasmine Vogue Pai has designed a set that is more evocative than literal; even the truck is only a metal frame on wheels that the contestants can revolve as they sing; it's really the only "movement" in the play. Janice Schopper's costumes shout TEXAS, while Nicholas Marmo's lightning beautifully denotes the passage of time before a winner can be declared (91 hours from start to finish).
Because the action of Hands on a Hardbody is emotionally, rather than physically, driven, it might be easy to dismiss it as mediocre. But the daring aspect of the book and situation, the terrific accompaniment of a live trio onstage and the variations in the music (even if it all sounds countryish), all delivered by a cast of talented actors/singers, make Hands on a Hardbody by 4th Wall Theatre a production that should be seen. Get your tickets now because it runs just one more weekend.
Hands on a Hardbody will be performed at the Westminster Arts Center, 449 Franklin Street, Bloomfield, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.566.9255 or visit www.4thwalltheatre.org .