Mud Creek has its hands on something special

By John Lyle Belden

“American Dream, Japanese car.”

That line from “Hands on a Hardbody” sums up the theme of this musical, which had a brief Broadway run, but is more suited to the Heartland. Local hands have crafted it for Mud Creek Players through Sept. 24.

Based on a 1990s documentary about an actual contest, in this musical by Doug Wright with songs by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, a Nissan dealer in the small east-Texas city of Longview selects 10 contestants to stand with at least one hand touching a Hardbody pickup, with the last one who loses contact with the vehicle winning it. Dealer Mike Ferris (Joe Aiello) has ordered extra inventory to sell to onlookers, which annoys his assistant Cindy Barnes (Kathy Borgmann), but she’s hoping for the best. The event is covered live by radio station KYKX, announced by deejay Frank Nugent (Jeremy Crouch).

Benny (Onis Dean) has won this contest before, but his wife left him in that prize truck. He is full of plans and strategies to win again. Aging and injured former oil-rig worker J.D. (Chris Otterman) sees this as the chance for something to go right, as wife Virginia (Beth Ray-Scott) resents his stubborn insistence at competing yet stands by with refreshments and cool towels. Ronald (Noah Nordman) is between jobs and sees opportunities with a new truck, providing there’s no rain and he keeps his blood sugar up. Norma (Anya Andrews) sees the Lord’s Will in winning the contest, buoyed by “prayer warriors” at her church and Gospel music on her Walkman. Jacinta (Natalie Coronado Hammerle) hopes to sell the truck after winning so she can finish her veterinary degree. Janis (Jennifer J. Kaufmann) has six kids and little else, aside from a devoted cheerleader of a husband, Don (Collin Moore). Chris (Nicholas Gibbs), out of the Marines long enough to have grown his hair, doesn’t say much. Greg (Matthew Blandford) is a young, out-of-work dreamer. Equally fresh-faced Kelli (Nicole Crabtree) has a job but could use a better vehicle. Heather (Carolyn Lynch) acts like just being a hot blonde is enough to make her win – and unbeknownst to others, she may be right.

Also on hand are judge and timekeeper Lilly (Kirsten Cutshall), event medic Dr. Stokes (Sophie Peirce), and Service Dept. mechanics Miki (Lauren Bogart), A.J. (Ahnn Christopher) and Jerry (Peyton Rader). The on-stage band are Ben Craighead, Craig Kemp, Katie Ryan, Jill Stewart, and leader Linda Parr.

The true star, of course, is “Ruby,” the body of a 1997 Nissan pickup. Director Michelle Moore said Mud Creek volunteers fixed up the impressive prop so that it looks brand new, complete with shining red paint job, working tailgate and doors, bed one can climb into, seats, and functional headlights and horn.*

This kind of situation lends itself to a lot of humor, like Kaufmann’s charming take on the straight-talking redneck mama, and a bit of intrigue (what exactly is Mike up to?). It also examines the extreme edge of American competitive spirit. For those familiar with it, this show is like a less-tragic version of the dance-marathon classic “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” complete with the mental and physical consequences of forced exhaustion. As Stokes notes, staying awake for what will be 90-plus hours is a tactic used in other countries to torture prisoners. Benny understands this, exploiting the fraying tempers and confidence of fellow competitors – giving Dean a lot to work with in his complex character. We also get an insight into past stresses, such as Chris’s experiences in the first Gulf War, and the frustration of ethnic assumptions, as Jacinta bristles at having to point out she was “Born in Laredo.”

Characters to root for include Norma, as Andrews has us feeling her pain when the Spirit is weak, as well as Greg and Kelli, with their growing feelings and a fateful decision that changes their lives.  

So, who ends up with the truck? That’s kinda beside the point (and a huge spoiler) but this tale does come with a satisfying ending, as well as the what-happens-next lines by each of the main cast during the last songs.  

With the friendly confines of the Mud Creek “Barn,” its excellent stage set (cleverly designed by Moore), and Dani Gibbs choreography that even has the truck “dancing” to the stage edge, there is an immersive element to “Hands on a Hardbody” that makes this as much an experience as a play, complete with a final song with chorus we are invited to join in on.  

Our shortcut to the Lone Star State is 9740 E. 86th St., Indianapolis. For tickets and information, visit MudCreekPlayers.org.

(*Moore said the pickup prop – which has no engine to weigh it down or leak on stage, a reinforced hood an actor can climb on, and sets of casters it rests on for easy movement – will be available after this run to a company that wants to mount a production of this musical. Contact her via the website for details.)   

During a year of challenges, a man-eating plant is discovered in Greenfield

By John Lyle Belden

With this year’s shutdown, what’s a student thespian from Greenfield-Central or other area schools to do? A few have found their way to Skid Row, now set up on the stage of Greenfield’s Ricks Centre in the Ricks-Weil Theatre Company production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Though it’s held outside the restrictions of Indianapolis/Marion County, the R-W crew are taking measures for the audience’s health and safety, including closing every other row of seating, and no concessions.

Directed by Indy actor Dan Scharbrough, with musical direction by Kathy Borgmann, choreography by Jennifer Darr, and costumes by producer Beth Ray-Scott, the familiar musical follows the story of an old Roger Corman film – via book and songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken – in which an ordinary guy finds an extraordinary plant with a macabre appetite.

Seymour (Steven Allen) can’t find the brightly-colored flytrap in any of his reference books, so he names it after his sweet co-worker Audrey (Ciara Huckeby) and presents it to his flower-shop boss Mushnik (Corey Yeaman). It’s a hit, but it’s wilting. Clumsy Seymour’s minor injury near the flower clues him in to what the plant really wants – blood! But he’s not the only one sporting bandages; Audrey is getting the worst of her “semi-sadist” boyfriend, local dentist Orin Scrivello (Cael Savage).

The cast also includes A.J. Springman as Patrick Martin of World Botanical Enterprises, Marie Hall as a Homeless Woman, and a full Greek chorus of “Ronettes:” Carolyn Bolton, Saige Chandler, Frances Hull, Ali Kern, Juliana McGuire, Leah Olin, and Vicki Kortz, who also voices Audrey II.

Befitting a comic musical, the “Horrors” are more fun than scary, even with characters getting eaten. Allen and Huckeby are well cast, with appealing looks and good voices. Our Audrey manages the skid-row accent without sounding too cartoony. Savage plays the grade-A jerk with just enough tongue in cheek. Having more than three Ronettes works in this production, with different ones at times coming on and off stage singularly or in twos or threes – like on a busy street. While there is plenty of youthful energy, the actors range from high school and college to… out of school a while.

As for the “star,” Kortz giving what is often cast as a deep-voiced monster a fierce feminine tone makes her Audrey II appropriately threatening (I’d say something here about the “mean green Mother,” but that song’s not in the stage version).

For anyone who has only seen the 1986 Frank Oz movie, note that aside from different songs (some familiar hits, like “Suddenly Seymour,” are still there) it has a different ending, closer to the original 1960 film.

Another note: In the second (and final) weekend, July 24-26, former G-C drama teacher Ted Jacobs will play the Dentist, while Savage plays Mr. Martin.

And yes, there will be a giant man-eating plant on the stage (in puppet form). Audrey II puppeteers include Allen (small) and Olin (big).

The H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts is at 122 W. Main St. (US 40) in downtown Greenfield. Tickets are $13, $10 for students, at www.seatyourself.biz. See Ricks-Weil Theatre Company on Facebook for more information.