Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review of Refuge Theatre Project's Hands on a Hardbody

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Hands on a Hardbody. The book was by Doug Wright and the lyrics were by Amanda Green. The music was by Trey Anastasio and Green. It was directed by Christopher Pazdernik, with music direction by Jon Schneidman and choreography by Ariel Triunfo. It was about a competition in Longview, Texas to win a truck. To win it, you had to keep your hand on it for the longest, which is a lot harder than you might think at first because there is no time limit. You get to learn various life stories of the contestants and what has motivated them to partake in this competition. It is about different types of people coming together, what makes someone more deserving than others, and the "American Dream." I thought it was very well performed and had a story I never would have imagined would make such a compelling musical.

I really liked the construct of the show and how there was a song to show why they each needed the truck. One of my favorite songs of this nature that really stood out to me was "Born in Laredo," which was sung by Jesus Peña (Sebastian Summers). It was sparked by Cindy Barnes (Jenna Fawcett) asking him for identification to make sure he wasn't an illegal immigrant, even though she hadn't asked anyone else that question. The song is about how everybody looks at Jesus like he doesn't belong even though he was born in Texas. People make assumptions about him--that he is a foreigner, that he doesn't speak English, and that he is a criminal--but he just wants to be seen as a Texan. He needs the truck so he can sell it to go to veterinary school so he can achieve the basic respect that someone who was white would get automatically. I really liked "Burn That Bridge," sung by Heather Stovall (Molly Kral) and Mike Ferris (Dan Gold) because of the great harmonies and chemistry the actors had. They both had a great twang to their voice that added a southern flair. It shows one of the less noble motivations of the contestants. Heather just really wants fame. She has other less important goals: just wanting the truck because she wants to have a truck and it reminds her of her dad. That doesn't stack up as well as someone who needs it to get through school.

I also really enjoyed the song "My Problem Right There," sung by Ronald McCowan (Jared David Michael Grant) as he suffers the effects of having eaten too many candy bars. It talks about his bad life choices and how his problems affect him. But it is a very upbeat song with three backup singer/dancers like The Ronettes, which is appropriate since his name is Ronald. I think it is important that the song is upbeat because if the song was slow and lamenting, it would defeat the idea of the character who is “upbeat” even under the ridiculous circumstances that he is under. And that personality trait is why even though he is there for a short time he makes so many friends and lifts the group spirits even if they are competitors. Something I noticed was how when Ron came back he tries to show Norma (Cathy Reyes McNamara) how her religious practices can help the whole group and that if she just unplugs and spreads the love that she has for God, she could make a lot of people much happier.

This play tackles a very difficult subject: what makes someone deserving. It is hard to decide in this play who should get the truck and who does not deserve it. For example, at first Benny (Derek Fawcett) seems like an outright greedy bad person because of his general demeanor, but then we see him helping out and giving tips to J.D. (Tim Kough). Benny still does not seem to me to be the most deserving of the truck because even in his last ballad he says some racist and rude things. He does this even in a song supposed to show that he is “not so bad” after all. I think that this show is not trying to say, “this person needs this truck more than this person, so you should give it to them, and if they don’t get the truck it is a tragedy.” The musical is trying to show that no one is perfect. This play is not a battle of good vs. evil; it is a battle of people vs. people. Even though, of course, we all have our favorite characters, they are all not perfect and all have somewhat valid reasons for why this truck is so important to them. The audience favors the characters they relate to the most, but each individual audience member might have a different opinion about who is the most worthy.

People who would like this show are people who like plays that challenge the basic structure of good vs. evil, bridge-burning tension, and Ronald-ettes. I think that people should go see this show. It is very heartfelt and fun, and it has great performances. I really liked it.

Photos: Nick Roth

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