Review: HANDS ON A HARDBODY at Refuge Theatre Project

Review: HANDS ON A HARDBODY at Refuge Theatre Project

In HANDS ON A HARDBODY, now making its Chicago premiere with Refuge Theatre Project, the mobility offered by that titular hardbody truck is not just of the wheeled variety. Instead, the contest among 10 working class Texans to be the last to have their hands on that Nissan truck also becomes a rather obvious symbol of the American Dream. While book writer Doug Wright, lyricist Amanda Green, and composers Green and Trey Anastasio are not subtle in their treatment of that metaphor, HANDS ON A HARDBODY is a thoughtful meditation on how elusive that dream can be.

HANDS ON A HARDBODY captures some tension as the audience eagerly waits to see who will win the contest. Because the contest itself is inherently static, however, the show sometimes moves at a similarly stagnant pace. This can be effective, as in the long, awkward beats of silence that come following the fifteen-minute breaks in the grueling contest. These moments reveal that the 10 strangers in the contest have little in common, aside from a drive to win. In other moments, director Christopher Pazdernik and choreographer Ariel Triunfo use movement to break up the stagnation. Evan Frank’s modest scenic designer uses a metal truck outline on wheels as the center piece of the action, around which the actors rotate. It’s logical, of course, that Refuge wouldn’t budget in the use of an actual truck, but the design in a way underscores the elusiveness of the dream that these contestants are trying to achieve.

The musical, based on a 1997 documentary of the same name, uses the framework of the hardbody competition to delve into character studies of each of the contestants. Most of the contestants have songs that reveal their backstories, interwoven with reflections on the contest at hand. Green and Anastasio’s songs have a contemporary feel with strong influences of pop music and light country, befitting the show’s Southern setting. The songs vary in specificity and effectiveness, but the overall effect captures an atmosphere befitting the show.

The score also riffs on some classic musical theater conventions, as with the “I Want” duet sung between Kelli (a clarion-voiced Alli Atkenson) and Greg (Roy Samra), who strike up a flirtation during the contest. In “I’m Gone,” Kelli sings about her job at a UPS store and how she dreams of going overseas every time she processes a package with a foreign address. Greg chimes in with an equally lofty dream of becoming a Hollywood stuntman. The rather simple nature of Kelli and Greg’s dreams also echoes the overall tone of HANDS ON A HARDBODY; these contestants just want some sort of respite from the grueling trials of their everyday lives.

The most effective character-developing number by far is “Born in Laredo,” sung by the Mexican-American contestant Jesus. When the contest runners assume that Jesus must be an immigrant based on his racial profile, he launches into a beautiful story about how he is every bit as American as the other contestants for he was born right there in Texas. The number builds character and also poignantly reflects the assumptions so often made about immigrants to the United States. It packs a real punch hearing it now in 2019 (the musical was written back in 2012). Sebastian Summers handles the song’s breakneck pace with ease, and his nuanced performance drives home the number’s powerful message.

The ensemble across the board delivers the material in HANDS ON A HARDBODY for maximum emotional effect. Even when the structure of the musical feels overly tidy, the actors maintain integrity. None of the actors speak with Southern accents, but some of the actors sing with a pleasant Southern drawl. This is particularly true of Molly Kral in the role of Heather Stovall, who has echoes of a Carrie Underwood-type in her vocals. Kral nails the number “Burn That Bridge,” a standoff between Heather and dealership employee Mike Ferris (Dan Gold). It’s an interesting choice that the actors do not speak with an accent, but the use of accented vocals roots us in the musical’s setting.

After revealing the contest winner, HANDS ON A HARDBODY also comes to a rather tidy conclusion with the upbeat finale “Keep Your Hands On It.” Aside from that number, though, HANDS ON A HARDBODY beautifully conveys that the road to the promised American Dream is never easy. And while the contestants all bring different hardships and backstories to the contest, they all long for the same success story.

Refuge Theatre Project’s HANDS ON A HARDBODY runs through April 27 at Mason Hall in the Preston Bradley Center, 941 West Lawrence Avenue. Tickets are $30.

Photo Credit: Nick Roth

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