Review: Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's 'Hands on a Hardbody' Tells a Story of Yearning Competition

Hands on a Hardbody runs through June 30

Jun 13, 2024 at 1:27 pm
Hands on a Hardbody is presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati now through June 30
Hands on a Hardbody is presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati now through June 30 Photo: Mikki Schaffner

Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati calls itself a “premiere theater” because its productions are almost always new to Greater Cincinnati audiences. That was the case back in 2014 when it presented the regional premiere of the musical Hands on a Hardbody, a 2013 Broadway show inspired by a 1997 documentary about people in a Texas town participating in an endurance contest that required them to outlast other competitors by keeping one hand constantly touching a Nissan pickup truck that was the prize for the winner. ETC audiences appreciated the show a decade ago, but in an unusual move, ETC’s Producing Artistic Director Lynn Meyers decided to revive it to conclude the theater’s 2023-2024 season.

In her director’s note in the show program, Meyers called the show “a metaphor for Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati.” She was amplifying a line from one of its songs: “If you love something, keep your hands on it.” That’s a meaningful rationale for bringing back this show, and Meyers’ current production, which she again directed, underscores the value of doing so. The opening night audience was fully and emotionally engaged in the story and its varied contestants.

The show is simply staged: a candy-apple red pickup truck is front and center on a shiny black floor, beneath a large billboard for “Floyd King Nissan, Longview, Texas.” Scenic and lighting designer Brian c. Mehring uses pools of light to highlight performers and shift focus from moment to moment. Since a dozen of the cast members play the people with their hands on the truck, they also are responsible for its “choreography” – as it’s rotated and shifted into various configurations and also, using a cover over its flatbed, a surface for dancing. (Chaz Wolcott inventively oversaw the latter, as well as the carefully orchestrated twists and turns of the vehicle.)

Hands on a Hardbody is a perfect demonstration of another of Meyers’ concepts for her “ensemble” theater. The show does not have a leading performer; everyone has a moment to step forward, a song to sing and a story to reveal. A majority of the cast are familiar faces from past ETC productions. Jared Joplin is a bullying past winner who’s taking another shot at outlasting everyone by intimidation and mind games. Like many of the people we meet, he has a backstory that’s revealed, giving him greater complexity. Patrick Earl Phillips, another ETC regular (in fact, a past ETC apprentice), portrays a sullen, disillusioned military veteran. Phil Fiorini and Kate Wilford are a long-married couple who have lost the one-time magic of their relationship but are inspired to reconnect. Andrew Maloney (another former ETC apprentice) and sweet Brooke Steele play young, idealistic dreamers reaching out for the opportunity symbolized by the truck that might take them to Hollywood. Deb G. Girdler, a true ETC veteran, turns in a sardonic performance as a weary woman whose loving husband (Jim Hopkins) supports her, but who is envious of a sultry young woman (Denise Devlin) clearly being set up as a winner for promotional reasons. Michael G. Bath and Annie Fitzpatrick are also familiar ETC regulars, playing the dealership’s marketers with Jamie Cordes as the manager with divided loyalties.

The production also features some new faces. Aleah Vassell plays a devout young woman, sustained by listening to tapes of Gospel songs. She renders one of the show’s most rousing numbers, “Joy of the Lord.” Deondra Kamau Means, a regular with Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, renders a memorable portrait of a man of commitment, even though he’s the first to be disqualified. Franco Valerga, a rising senior in UC’s CCM musical theater program, as a son of immigrants delivers another of the show’s moving songs, “Born in Laredo.” 

Hands on a Hardbody convincingly portrays a cross-section of everyday people yearning for something more. As they fell away from contact with the truck due to exhaustion or delusion and exit the stage, a remarkable audience response happened during the second act on opening night: First, gasps and sighs that someone worthy had failed — followed by applause for each of those characters’ departures. The empathy felt by everyone watching was definitely the product of Meyers’ sensitive direction and convincing performances by everyone in this talented cast.

Meyers’ mantra from the show, “If you love something, keep your hands on it,” is a clear statement of why this production connects and why it made sense to present it again. It’s sure to be a popular offering to wrap up ETC’s 38th season.

Hands on a Hardbody, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the, Rhine, continues through June 30. More info: ensemblecincinnati.org.