Hands on a Hardbody (Review)

Ensemble Theatre brings an effervescent and offbeat new musical to Cincinnati

Critic's Pick

Hands on a Hardbody is an effervescent and offbeat new musical inspired by a 1997 documentary of the same name that followed the story of 10 contestants trying to win a shiny new red truck in the hot parking lot of a Texas car dealership. The last one standing with at least one hand on the truck wins.

D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, has worked for three years to bring Hardbody to Cincinnati. The show’s script is by Doug Wright (the prizewinning playwright of I Am My Own Wife and the musical Grey Gardens, past hits for ETC). The score is by Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame), and the lyrics are by Amanda Green (High Fidelity, Bring it On.) 

A heroically lit, red “hardbody” Nissan pickup truck (the same one used in the show’s recent Broadway production) takes center stage and is as much a character as a set piece, thanks to Brian c. Mehring’s scenic and lighting designs and Patti James’s ‘car’eography. When 10 characters take two hours to sing their life stories and dreams while clinging to a pickup, it needs to stay interesting. It delivers.

In Act I, you get to know the poignant life circumstances that have driven 10 contestants to this grueling endurance event. Also onstage: several spouses and dealership employees with ulterior motives. At first, the set-up feels too repetitive: A character is introduced and sings his or her backstory. By the second act, I cared deeply for Sara Mackie’s Jesus freak, Dallas Padoven’s Marine, Denise Devlin’s pill popper and the rest of this real-life motley crew. The final songs soared.

The 15-member ensemble features strong actors and singers, although a last-minute understudy seemed terrified. With no ingénue and no classic hero, diversity plays a natural, welcome part of the story. Charlie Clark’s Benny Perkins is terrific as an anti-hero who belts out tunes with prowess; a cross between singer Meat Loaf and actor Nick Offerman. Kate Wilford and Phil Fiorini are particularly touching as nurturing wife Virginia Drew and her frustrated husband JD. 

ETC’s shows have been selling well these last many seasons, so you might have to scramble to get your hands on this hardbody show — but the effort will surely be worth it.

HANDS ON A HARDBODY, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Sept. 21. (1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine)

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