How do you find the melody that best accompanies the lyric “…pre-existing conditions…”?
One can image the creators of Hands on a Hard Body (Doug Wright: Book; Amanda Green: Lyrics and Music; and Trey Anastasio:Music) with an open case of Bud sitting round a trailer-side bench as the tumbleweed rolls by debating this question. Or, maybe they are in a bar kept very dark for the Texans within who likely get far more Vitamin D in their Texas day than the typical Chicagoan does in a winter’s month. As the chuckling brainstorm continues, they add in PTSD, illegal immigration, the disappearing manufacturing base and just about any hot topic of our times. Even Trump’s cringe worthy overuse of the word “..loser” is in the air.
Hands on a Hard Body didn’t happen that way. The first of many masterstrokes in this musical, in this writer’s view, was in realizing the potential of a 90’s documentary about a competition created by a Texas Nissan dealer that gives a truck to the last one standing. The competitors are charged with keeping one hand on the truck body at all times, and the drama comes in watching them peel away as sleep-deprivation takes its toll.
Many boomers and older will immediately recognize the setup as the same as the Great Depression Dance Contests captured in the film They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and perhaps, like this writer, come to wonder why nobody ever thought to make that into a musical.
True, there are some classic issues in this book (the manhood thing, infidelity, religious belief, and more) but this is one of the most topical musicals of late this writer can recall. Unlike Broadway musicals that append a one-liner here or there to make the book timely, in Hands on a Hard Body all the touchstones of our times are conveyed in quickly defined characters given their cameo solos akin to the rollout in the musical Chorus Line. We fall in love with them all—even the meanie—eventually. We feel their pain. We walk away from this performance in one of the country’s bluest cities a bit more open to looking at the desperate faces at Trump rallies with sympathy.
Refuge Theatre Project Gives This Script the Production It Deserves
It certainly doesn’t hurt that all 15 members of this cast have strong singing voices and acting chops to match. Expect to be debating with your theater companion who was “best” for quite some time, never quite reaching a conclusion.
Staged simply, the major set design (Scenic Designer and Props: Evan Frank) is a truck skeleton that can twirl. This writer dares you to not break out in a smile when the singing cast gives it its first turn. You will also likely smile when you realize how the Director (Christopher Pazdernik) and Choreographer (Ariel Triunfo) are playing with you guessing on whether this hands off the truck is the real thing or just done for theatric effect.
It all more than works, in this writer’s view, and more than fits Refuge Theatre Project’s tagline charter—“Under-produced, Under-Appreciated Musical Theatre”.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Watch these clips of rehearsals and listen to the catchy tunes—
Book by Doug Wright
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green
Directed by Refuge Theatre Project’s Artistic Director Christopher Pazdernik
Music Directed by Jon Schneidman
Choreographed by Ariel Triunfo
Alli Atkenson, “Kelli Mangrum;” Max Cervantes, “Chris Alvaro;” Katherine Condit, “Janis Curtis;” Derek Fawcett, “Benny Perkins,” Dan Gold, “Mike Ferris;” Jenna Fawcett, “Cindy Barnes”; Jared David Michael Grant, “Ronald McCowan;” Tim Kough, “JD Drew;” Molly Kral, “Heather Stovall;” Matt Patrick, “Frank Nugent;” Cathy Reyes McNamara; “Norma Valverde;” Roy Samra, “Greg Wihote;” Judy Lea Steele, “Virginia Drew;” Sebastian Summers, “Jesus Pena;” Anthony Whitaker, “Don Curtis/Dr. Stokes;” Jasmine Young, female swing.
Additional Production Team Members:
Matt Dominguez*, associate director; Sean Michael Mohler, stage manager; Evan Frank*, set designer/props master; Collin G. Helou* and Jennifer Kules, lighting designers; Isaac Mandel, sound designer/audio designer; Uriel Gomez, costume designer and Brendan Siddall, production assistant.
Thru April 27, 2019
Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m.
NOTE: There are no performances Friday, April 5 and Saturday, April 6 and added performances Monday, April 1 and Thursday, April 4.
Mason Hall in the Preston Bradley Center
941 W. Lawrence Ave
Reviewer/Editor’s Note—The reviewer almost mistakenly went to Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center, and heard conversations among audience members who had made same mis-assumption. This is an extraordinarily interesting historic building, albeit in disrepair, in Uptown.
Visit the Refuge Theatre Project website for tickets.
Photos: Nick Roth
Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago