Review: ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ at the Keegan Theatre

A country-western musical that's a hoedown of heart and humor.

The title of this show, if you have never heard of it, doesn’t mean what you might think. It’s not about fitness. It’s not about sex. It’s a country-western musical about ten hard-up Texans trying to win a hardbody pickup truck. It’s based on a documentary about a real dealership’s annual endurance promotion: Contestants literally have to keep their hands on the truck. If they let go, they lose. Days pass as one by one they drop out. Last contender standing gets the keys to the prize. It’s musical chairs meets Survivor meets They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Keegan Theater, renowned for its slam-dunk productions of well-known musicals such as Chicago, Hair, and American Idiot, now delivers the goods with one more out of the way…and it’s a winner. Hands on a Hardbody is a hoedown of heart and humor and a shindig of lifted spirits.

Caroline Dubberly as Heather with the cast of ‘Hands on a Hardbody.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

First of all, the score (music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green) is terrific, and under the ever-excellent musical direction of Jake Null, the 19 singer-actors and 8 musicians raise the rafters of the Keegan like a countrified tent revival.

The show jump-starts with an all-company number, “Human Drama Kind of Thing,” that sets up the rules and spells out the stakes:

Everybody’s broke here
Tryin’ to make ends meet
Pay a debt back, had a setback
Got to get back on our feet

Each contestant is in specifically dire financial straits, and over the course of the musical, we get to know them up close.  But everyone is here for the same reason: “If I win this truck, all my troubles are through.”

The book by Douglas Wright does a deft job of multiple character development and storyline exposition, and every contestant gets a compelling musical number. While the script’s structure might seem formulaic and predictable, what animates the show’s ample appeal in performance is not so much suspense about who’s going to win the truck but the successive emotional grabbers in the unfolding vignettes of hardship, heartache, and hope.

For instance, contestant Janis is accompanied by her husband Don, who’s there for more than moral support. Their song together, “If I Don’t Sleep” (beautifully sung by Valerie Adams Rigsbee and Gary DuBreuil), is a tenderly moving evocation of empathy, mutuality, and reciprocity in a marriage.

The marriage of contestant JD and his devoted wife Virginia is in an opposite situation. As we learn in their song “Alone with Me,” their relationship is being stressed and tested by his emotional withdrawal from her. “I don’t want to talk…. Just let me be,” sings Patrick M. Doneghy as he. To which, as she, Katie McManus sings (in a gorgeous voice that is a standout): “I wish I knew what I could do to make myself enough for you. / The way that you’re enough for me.”

Another outstanding voice is that of Shayla Lowe as Norma, who belts a country-gospel number late in Act One called “Joy of the Lord” that introduces the show’s rich thematic spin on the spirituality of the poor:

I feel the joy!
I feel the joy in me
Lifted my pain
When I needed to be
The joy of the Lord’s in me

In counterpoint, late in Act Two there’s a song about faith lost. It’s called “God Answered My Prayers” (the title is sarcastic because God’s answer came back “no”), and it’s sung by an abrasive contestant named Benny, whom no one takes a liking to because he won a truck two years ago (but his wife drove off in it when she left him). John Loughney as Benny knocks the number off the lot.

John Loughney as Benny with the cast of ‘Hands on a Hardbody.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

For the players in this unfair game, this keep-on-truckin’ contest is not only a brass-ring thing; it’s a hopey-faithy thing: a gamble that with luck and the Lord will pay off. What makes Hands on a Hardbody so poignant (when it’s not being irresistibly raise-the-roof rousing) is that the stories it tells echo through the country’s entire paycheck-to-paycheck and no-paycheck population. America does not say, Let them eat cake. America says, Let them play games of chance and pray in a chancel.

The show has many more fascinating human-interest stories set to song: Jesús (Andres Alexjandro Ponce)—who gets dissed as an illegal immigrant by Cindy (Kari Ginsberg), the snooty judging partner of Mike (Josh Sticklin), the sharpster dealership owner—is actually “Born in Loredo” and saving to become a veterinarian.

Chris (Duane Richards II), a war vet traumatized by combat, longs to be “Stronger.” Another troubled young man, Ronald (Willie Garner), sings of “My Problem Right There”—which is actually problems plural. Heather (Caroline Dubberly) was enlisted by Mike on account of her looks and is pressed to admit, “It’s a Fix.”

A romance blooms between Kelli (Beatice Owens) and Greg (Ramon Danie Rodriguez), but when she drops out (“I’m Gone”) he must choose whether to follow. Frank (Chris Gillespie) a local TV reporter tracks the contest and the players. And a fine Ensemble (Dana Nearing, Maggie Leigh Walker, Oscar Ceville, and Selena Clyne-Galindo) rounds out the talented cast.

Willie Garner as Ronald with the cast of ‘Hands on a Hardbody.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Co-Directed energetically by Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea, with enjoyable character-driven choreography by Velasco, Hands on a Hardbody also sports a crack creative team. Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan locates the story simply and economically around a twirling truck under oversize pennants. Lighting Designer Jason Arnold gives each musical number a sensational finish. Sound Designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith mics each voice clearly such that when they sing as a chorale it gives chills. And Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson gives the contestants a casual array of denim, Ts, caps, sneaks, shorts, and sweats for standing around under hot sun.

The impressive pit orchestra, kept invisible backstage but thrillingly audible throughout, includes Jake Null and Deborah Jacobson (keyboards), Jaime Ibacache and Brad Emmett (guitars), Jason Wilson (bass), Angelica Kalasz (cello), Alexandra Touzinsky (violin/mandolin), and Manny Arciniega (percussion).

The all-company finale, “Keep Your Hands on It,” is a huge crowd-pleaser, and as performed on the Keegan stage, its touching refrain—”If you want something, keep your hands on it”—will stay with you long after.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

[Read Barbara MacKay’s interview with Hands on a Hardbody co-directors Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea.]

Hands on a Hardbody plays March 9 through April 6, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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