Theatre review: 'Hands on a Hardbody' keeps on truckin' at New Line

For the News-DemocratJune 2, 2014 

A shiny new red pickup truck is the tantalizing prize for the last man standing. Of the 10 ordinary people competing on a Nissan dealership's asphalt lot in Longview, Texas, who will endure five days to grab this shot at a better life?

"Hands on a Hardbody" is the stuff dreams are made of, and an intriguing symbol of Americana to spotlight as a conventional musical. In an impressive regional premiere, New Line Theatre infuses this small-town view of modern times with a sweetness, dignity and spirit that lingers long after the winner is declared.

Because of its big heart and real story, the theatrical experience is refreshing, an anti-thesis of spectacle. Why did this close on Broadway after only 28 performances and nine Drama Desk Award nominations? Mystifying. It's warm, funny and touching -- clever showcasing, compassionate writing by Pulitzer Prize-winning Doug Wright and pleasing songs by Tony nominees Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green.

The relatable characters mesh as a rich tapestry of humanity, and New Line's energetic ensemble creates believable good ol' boys and girls seeking a fresh start.

And the performers never condescend. We know these lower-middle class folks struggling with current economic realities from the moment they sing "It's a Human Drama Thing" to their uplifting finale "Keep Your Hands on It."

Standing at a truck could be a static work, but director Scott Miller doesn't let such restrictions hamper the stage action. You believe these contestants are affected by the elements, ambition, physical problems and mental fatigue. One one by one, their hands come off that vehicle of hope, but they never transmit it before that moment, either.

The mix of music styles works well -- including country, folk, gospel, salsa, and roots rock. The pit orchestra is strong under conductor Sue Goldford.

Anastasio of the rock group Phish and Green ("High Fidelity," "Bring It On"), the daughter of Broadway legends Adolph and Betty Comden Green, collaborated on the music, and she wrote the smart, witty lyrics.

Several roles are quite a departure for a number of New Line regulars, with Jeffrey Wright fearlessly portraying wily past winner Benny Perkins, not afraid to spout his opinions or trip up rivals. Wearing an enviable mustache and maintaining a Texas twang, he superbly conveys this guy's motives and methods.

Collinsville native Anna Skidis is a sunny, devout Norma Valverde, counting on Jesus to take the wheel. A showy role, she has the best giggle fit ever, and one of the best solos, "Joy of the Lord."

Luke Steingruby elicits sympathy as a Marine having trouble coping with his return from service, delivering a poignant "I'm Gone."

Todd Schaefer strikes the right notes as the older contestant JD Drew, contending with a work-related injury that forced him into early retirement. Alison Helmer is solid as his supportive wife Virginia. His "Used to Be" lament about changing landscapes is a terrific song.

Dynamic couple Marcy Wiegert and Ryan Foizey are strong as UPS worker Kelli Mangrum and out-of-work Greg Wilhote, who bond during the contest.

Providing much comic relief is Cindy Duggan as a middle-aged wife and mom Janis Curtis and hilarious Keith Thompson as her overbearing husband Don.

Margeau Baue Steinau is a feisty dealership employee, and Mike Dowdy gives an edge to his wheeler-dealer owner Mike Ferris.

Taylor Pietz is an animated ball of fire as Heather Stovall. In a striking debut, Reynaldo Arceno plays Jesus Pena, desperate to win to finance veterinarian school. His "Born in Laredo" is angry and emphatic.

East St. Louis native Marshall Jennings is happy-go-lucky Ronald McCowan, who is eventually waylaid by too many Snickers bars.

Zachary Allen Farmer provides the slick patter of a local DJ broadcasting the contest.

Scenic designer Rob Lippert of O'Fallon succeeds in putting together and moving in a real truck, an amazing feat.

This production features a vitality and nobility that makes it a must-see. You might not have heard of this show, but you definitely won't forget it

What: "Hands on a Hardbody"

Where: New Line Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road, St. Louis

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, through June 21

General Admission seating

Cash and checks at the door, no credit/debit cards

Advance ticket sales through Metrotix at 314-534-1111

Information: www.newlinetheatre.com or 314-773-6526

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