Floyd King Nissan hosts a contest that tests will and physical endurance. For the prize of a gleaming red truck, participants stand with at least one hand on the vehicle until a single hardy survivor remains. Based on a documentary of the event in Texas, the musical, ‘Hands on a Hardbody,’ incorporates actual comments from contestants into a lively, encouraging testament to the strength of dreams.
This Bay Area premiere is dynamic; radically different characters reveal insecurities, loneliness and secret desires during their time in the contest, with buoyant lyrics by Amanda Green. As hours stretch into days, the sleep-deprived contestants, who are allowed only a short break every six hours, are stripped of superficial masks. They open up to explore the pain of loss and love gone sour, facing realizations that were suppressed in the bustle of everyday life.
Despite the oddly intimate arrangement, there are struggles with prejudice. Jesus Peña (Alex Gomez) calls out public relations manager Cindy Barnes (Danielle DeBow) for her blatant discrimination through the cutting commentary “Born in Laredo,” and Janis Curtis (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) accuses Heather Stoval (Jenny Anell) of leveraging sex appeal to win favors.
Winding throughout the story are vignettes of what winning the truck represents, through songs that range from thundering gospel in “Joy of the Lord,” led by Norma Valverde (Daniela Innocenti Beem), to a powerfully moving ballad about the struggle of veterans, “Stronger” from Chris Alvaro (Michael Scott Wells).
Despite constrained space, Staci Arriaga’s choreography keeps an otherwise static setting filled with inventive movement.
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Exploring romance from its early blossoming to gentle decline, two couples face challenges to their relationships through the stressful contest. Shannon Rider as Virginia Drew and Barry Martin’s J.D. Drew masterfully depict the struggle of rediscovering fallow passion in a marriage that has reached a plateau of indifference. Their mournful longing for excitement soars in “Alone With Me.” Contrasting with freshly discovered affection, Greg Wilhote (Ryan Hook) and Kelli Mangrum (Kirstin Pieschke) exchange ideas of freedom, far from the dusty confines of Longview, Texas and dead end jobs.
Director Taylor Bartolucci calls the musical an “inspiring story of ordinary people willing to take a risk” and brings out the unique qualities of each participant, transforming rough, unlikable Benny Perkins (Brian Watson) into a complex antihero and finding balance between cheerful dances and grim confrontations for a cohesive production.
Infectious rhythm in Trey Anastasio and Green’s music is supported by the band, led by Craig Burdette on keyboard, and is used to indicate the passage of time between scenes. April George’s lighting design shifts to emphasize emotion, dimming with thoughtful soliloquies.
‘Hands on a Hardbody’ at Lucky Penny Productions celebrates the courage to hope. It satisfies like a tall glass of sweet tea, with haunting a cappella harmonies and a heartwarming conclusion.