Friday, October 3, 2014

Pit & Balcony's "Hands on Hardbody" eccentric, funny, insightful

The contest is about to begin

review and photographs by janet i. martineau

Imagine, in real life, lasting 71 hours standing upright with one hand always on the body of a Nissan truck. Often in the hot Texas sun. With only a 15 minute break every six hours.

Imagine, in real life, being the director of a musical and for the final dress rehearsal one of your major leads is too sick to perform. So you fill in, script in one hand, hoping he will be well enough by opening night.

Both scenarios converged Thursday night at Saginaw’s Pit and Balcony Community Theatre with the Tony-winning show "Hands on a Hardbody," based on a documentary about a real competition to win a truck.

We know Thomas Wedge is an accomplished and inventive director. Getting to witness his considerable acting chops and singing skills was an added bonus on this night. Something that occurs very rarely in the world of theater. That he blended in with the rest of this cast was remarkable; his contestant character a cynical, smart-mouthed jerk.

As for the show itself, it is eccentric, funny, insightful and all heart as it examines the hopes and dreams and life situations of 10 working-class, down-on-their-luck Americans. The ensemble song "Used to Be" will break your heart as it touches a deep nostalgic chord.

And oh that real Nissan truck that shares the stage – it spins, honks, becomes a drum set, and displays both its headlights and back up lights during the show. An 11th character participating in the contest.

There is also an inventive dance number with one its two dancers seated in an office chair with wheels.

Michael Curtis as the oldest contestant
This could've been a rather stagnant show given its one set with a big old truck right in the middle. But Wedge, also the choreographer, keeps the thing alive with the  movement of that truck and its attached cast which crawls all over and around it.

To be honest, some of the singing voices are a little on the weak side, a few of the actors need to work on their diction skills and others weren't quite there yet within their characters. The all-white backdrop also is jarring, taking away from the alleged setting of a car dealership.

The show itself is far less engaging when they're competing and is strongest during those 15 minute breaks every six hours as well as when, one by one, they drop as contestants until the last person is standing.  And its script is also cliched and kinda predictable. 

But there are so many many dynamic moments.

Brian Bateson is cast as a sullen, silent contestant....until his solo song "Stronger." Major goosebump time with his vocal and acting prowess; won't be a dry eye in the place. Beautifully lit too (as is the entire show),  and with artful cast movement around him.

Then there is Ann Russell-Lutenske, cast as a god-loving, gospel-singing contestant. She rocks the place with "Joy of The Lord," during which, because of fatigue, she starts to lose it and gets a case of the giggles, then starts singing until the rest of the contestants do the same -- and then they collectively use the truck, all of them, as a percussion instrument. Cool, cool, cool.

She is also one of the most effective actors in the cast, and there are several other times when her singing powers also manifest themselves magnificently.

And Michael Curtis is cast as the oldest contestant, a physically and emotionally aching sad sack. His two vocal numbers, duet/solo combinations with cast wife Holly Jacobs, are heart-tuggers as he too is strong in his acting skills throughout and she matches him in her brief stage time. Their "Alone With Me" is a beautifully written song.

Other strong performances are delivered by "slutty" Meagan Eager and "sweet" Randy Robinson as two of the other contestants and Kale Schafer and Toysha Welsh Sinclair as the conniving car dealership employes. Sinclair is so wonderfully sassy.

A shout out too for music director Loren Kranz and his music ensemble. Never overpowered things and enhanced the mood considerably.

"Hands on a Hardbody" runs this weekend and next weekend.

For more pictures: 

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