Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY Review – “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” Circa NOW

Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY
The cast of down on their luck Texans in competition to win a new truck dance and sing around the skeleton of a truck body set

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.

Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY
(L to R) Jared David Michael Grant, Catherine Reyes McNamara and Molly Kral
Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY
Roy Samra as Greg Wilhote and Alli Atkenson as Kelli Mangrum find love on the hard body of the truck
Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY
L to R Roy Samra and Alli Atkenson and the cast of HANDS ON A HARDBODY

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”.


Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY
Jared David Michael Grant as Ronald D. McCowan is the magnetically warm womanizer every woman can't help but love
Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY
Chris Alvaro (played by Max Cervantes) sings "Stronger", giving voice to the challenges Veterans face returning to a devastated economy, we feel it all the more because his character had been so dour and silent prior
Refuge Theatre Project HANDS ON A HARD BODY
Sebastian Summers as Jesus Pena sings the powerful "Born in Laredo", showcasing a light on anti-Latino racism


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 this video showing the TOP PICK PLAYS of 2019

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

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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