Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Hands on a Hardbody
Set at a Texas Nissan auto dealership, the plot follows ten down-on-their-luck individuals over the course of several days as they take part in an endurance contest to see which one of them can keep their hand on a truck the longest. As the hours and days drag on, we learn about each contestant until there is just one person standing, who still has one of their hands on the hardbody truck and gets to drive it home.
The musical (book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, and lyrics by Green) does a fairly good job in focusing on the hopes and dreams of these individuals, and the show has its heart in the right place and never looks down on or makes fun of these, mostly, less fortunate people. The songs are a blend of folk, soft country, and gospel, and the lyrics fit the Texas characters fairly well. However, there is very little surprising in the show with only a few revelations about the characters that aren't projected as soon as we first meet them. The score includes a few songs you will most likely find yourself humming, especially the finale, and it focuses on individuals you rarely see musicalized: financially strapped Americans of various ethnicities and ages all desperate to win a truck in order to change their lives for the better.
Hands on a Hardbody has a large ensemble, with many of the cast members on stage for almost the entire show. Each contestant gets a solo or scene to shine light on them as they sing about their pasts and their aspirations to give us a clear understanding as to why winning the truck is so important to them. Wright's book does a pretty good job of incorporating each contestant into the action, as well as two individuals who work for the dealership and a radio host who is providing live coverage of the contest.
With such a large cast, the musical wisely focuses on a few central characters, including the main antagonist Benny Perkins (Owen Donsker), who won the competition previously. Donsker is great, with a solid stage presence and a warm singing voice, as the condescending man who knows he will need to intimidate the other contestants in order to win again, but we also see from Donsker's fleshed out performance that Benny has some secrets he's hiding and, like many of the other contestants, has pain and his own demons he's dealing with. Calvin Corey is good as J.D. Drew, who is recovering from a recent surgery and is the oldest contestant. He believes he needs to win the truck to feel young again and win his wife back. Wardeh Hanna is lovely as J.D.'s wife Virginia, with a bright singing voice.
Lauren Youngstedt is excellent as Norma, a deeply religious woman who believes God wants her to win the truck. She has a large prayer chain of people praying for that to happen. Youngstedt has a fantastic voice and leads one of the best songs in the show, "Joy of the Lord," which builds from her laughing into a showstopper. Zoey Waller is great as Heather, a young girl who it seems will do anything to win the truck, and Lyda Armistead and Adam Kurbat are hilarious as the no-nonsense contestant Janis and her devoted husband Don. Mia Hurley and Declan Massey are bright and charming as two young adults who are drawn to each other during the contest, and Anyiah Smith is wonderful as Ronnie, who wants to win the truck to start a lawn service. Also, Juliana Duran Sanchez and TJ Brumbaugh provide fairly nuanced portrayals of Jesus Pena, the young Hispanic veterinary student, and Chris Alvaro, a recently discharged marine, respectively. Both characters encounter plenty of prejudice from the people around them. Ian Gray, Emmy Lange, and Zoie Moller round out the cast with solid portrayals of the pair of car dealership workers and the radio host, respectively.
Director Renee Koher does an excellent job in making sure the show focuses on the individual characters and not the life-sized truck that's center stage and that the cast all deliver performances that are three-dimensional and realistic. For a show where, for the most part, the cast are all standing around a truck, Stephen Hohendorf's choreography is organic to the characters and grows out of the action. The movement also creates several moments of beauty and, together with Koher, they find a way to add movement and motion into the songs and scenes and also seamlessly incorporate the action of having the truck turn around to bring the characters who begin standing behind it into focus. While the truck is a rental and light enough to move around the stage, it is realistic, and Amber Suding's simple but effective set design and the lighting by Ellie Little and sound design by Neveah Monk create a feeling of being on the pavement in a car dealership; the dimly light scenes at night with the sounds of bugs and road traffic off in the distance are quite realistic. The music direction from Elisa Kurbat delivers strong vocals and rich harmonies and a nice sound from the six-piece band. The costumes by Heather Riddle are excellent.
Hands on a Hardbody may not be a perfect musical but it does focus on people you don't usually see in a show and finds a way to connect their life experiences with our own. It also has an ending that is uplifting and hopeful. With a talented cast and solid direction, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production is entertaining and even quite moving in places.
Hands on a Hardbody runs through June 4, 2023, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.spotlightyouththeatre.org or call 602-843-8318
Director: Renee Koher