Christine Manning Brandt in the Henegar’s HANDS ON A HARDBODY. Photo by Dana Niemeier.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Now you may think “Hands on a Hardbody” has some titillating content. But this musical is far from that. The hardbody in question is a pick up truck.
The show, which opens tonight at the Henegar, takes a look at an America feverishly hanging onto dreams. The book, written by Doug Wright, found its inspiration in a 1997 documentary filmed in Longview, Texas where contestants compete to win a “hardbody” truck. The last person keeping a hand on the truck wins. Characters reveal everything from hope to despair and what it means to win the truck.
“The show really speaks to today’s audiences about understanding diversity and what it means to be an American,” said director Hank Rion. “Winning this truck to these people represents what the American dream is all about. Throughout the show you see why these people need this truck to validate some part of their life.
“It is gritty material for a mainstage and a musical. It is a real, honest and unflinching look into America and its politics.”
After seeing the 2013 Broadway show, New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood suggested that the music was a fresh break from the typical Broadway sound and has “an authentic and appealing roots-rock vibe.” Music was composed by Trey Anastasio, a founding member and lead guitarist and singer of the indie-rock band Phish. Amanda Green wrote the lyrics and composed some of the music.
Of course, along with music comes dance. And like Mr. Rion had in his direction, choreographer Kim Cole had the same problem — what to do with 10 people, remaining, essentially center stage, and who have to keep a had on the car.
The answer was to find the intensity in the physical challenges of competing for four days — sort of the same notion as the 1969 Jane Fonda movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” which was about people in a grueling dance competition with the award going to last couple remaining.
So Ms. Cole trained the actors as if they were in boot camp. She kept breaks to a minimum and forced them to do the most rigorous numbers back to back. That built stamina, she said. Although it tired them out, it made them work even harder.
“They got a sense of the goal we were striving for and found their second wind, much like the goal for the contestants wanting to win that truck,” Ns. Cole sad. “This show has taught us all that being strong physically is only a small part of it. It truly is a test of will.”
Cast member Christine Brandt told Cole that the “boot camp” method was a pivotal moment in the rehearsal period because it brought her to a deeper understanding of her character.
“As an actor in this show, it is a creative challenge I have not experienced before,” Ms. Brandt said. “You have to perform beyond the truck to connect to the audience since you are forced to stay with it quite often throughout…It’s not showy. It’s intimate and real, full of truthful moments.”
MC Wouters, who plays Kelli Mangrum, went to Facebook to learn more about her character.
“I was able to gain so much background knowledge about her life and the things that she likes and dislikes from her Facebook posts and profile,” Ms. Wouters said. “It’s pretty awesome that I was able to make a connection with someone I have absolutely adored playing onstage.”
“Hands on a Hardbody” is definitely not your typical Broadway musical, Mr. Rion said. “It leaves you with a message and leaves you thinking about your own life…Now that is the best kind of theater.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: HANDS ON A HARDBODY opens tonight and runs through May 21 at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $26 general, $23 for seniors and military and $16 student. There is also a $3 processing fee. The show contains adult language. Call 321-723-8698, visit Henegar.org or click onto their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running next week in the Melbourne Beachsider.