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.)