Hands on Hard Body opened on January 13th at the Drama Learning Center in Columbia, MD presented by the TYA Professional Training Program. The book was written by Tony and Pulitzer winner Doug Wright with Lyrics by Amanda Green and Music by Trey Anastasio (lead singer for Phish) and Amanda Green. The plot is based on a documentary by S. R. Bindler who depicted a contest in Longview, Texas.
People were asked to keep a hand on a Nissan truck. The last to drop his or her hand got the truck. In a survival of the fittest marathon the production hits on the truth about the American Dream and is a microcosm of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. This adaption deals with the fracturing of our society based on race, class and income. The musical takes turns focusing on each individual involved in the contest in order to make them more than just contestants in a game we are watching.
This is an ensemble production. The group is mainly high school and college students. They are all bright and talented young thespians. Today’s cast included Patrick Campbell (Ronald McCowen), Lila Cooper (Kelli Mangrum), Abrien Nelson (Greg Wilhote), Alicia Philadelphia (Norma Valverde), Ava Pirie (Heather Stovall), Mark Quackenbush (Benny Perkins), Shannon Taylor (Janis Curtis), Dumar Valencia (Chris Alvaro), Eli Vogel (JD Drew), and Luka Yetter (Jesus Peña). These characters are the contestants and Daniel Joya Iglesias (Mike Ferris), Lauren McKenna (Cindy Barnes) and Austin Pearsall (Frank Nugent) are the folks who work at the car dealer. Ellie Parks (Virginia Drew) and Jason Quackenbush (Don Curtis) are two of the spouses on site to support their loved ones. Rounding out the cast as part of the Ensemble are Lauren Alberg (playing Heather Stovall on alternate days) Ceoli Jacoby (playing Virginia Drew on alternate days), Leah McClelland, and Julia Totis.
There were several standout musical moments. Campbell is just perfect in “My Problem Right There” where he lets us know why he might not last very long. Parks and Vogel capture the long married and often long suffering couple with just the right warmth during “Alone with Me.” Philadelphia and the whole cast create the liveliest number and best choreographed in “Joy of the Lord” and then again, she, Campbell and Valencia do a brilliant acapella version in a reprise of the same. Valencia is extremely moving in the number “Stronger” explaining his need to be a marine. Yetter as Jesus deals with the prejudice he must deal with as a Mexican American living in Texas in “Born in Laredo.”
The director of all these fine young performers is Stephanie Lynn Williams who with Brandon Glass did the choreography. It might seem that having 10 people holding onto a car for most of the show would prove a challenge, but Williams and Glass keep everyone moving. The whole Nissan truck on center stage provides many places to dance. In “Joy to the Lord” every part of the truck also become a percussion instrument.
Tiffany Underwood Holmes is the musical director. The band including Kirk Gabby (drums), Diego Retana (guitar) and Brandon Bickham (bass) balance the musicality of the production with the sentiment of the vocals.
Lynn Joslin does a fine job as Lighting Designer as well as Amy Weimer as Costume Designer.
But the center of our focus on stage is always the big red Nissan truck. It is the only set except for a few signs from national chain stores and a couple of benches. It could easily dominate the show but to its credit it flows with the cast thanks to Williams and Glass.
Hands on Hard Body is fast, moving, and a tableau of life in much of today’s America. Even if you just have a little compact car, it is well worth the drive.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.