Hands on a Hardbody – Refuge Theatre

The cast of Refuge Theatre’s “Hands on a Hardbody.” Photo: Nick Roth

Gypsy. Sweeney Todd. Chorus Line. Chicago.

Great American musical theatre rallies around a common theme: Desperation – and the great lengths we go to get what we want.

Hands on a Hardbody – a show that didn’t get its due on Broadway – fits neatly into that realm.

Seeing Refuge Theatre’s scrappy, soulful production last night made me sit up and take notice.

This is a true American musical.

Based loosely on a 1997 documentary, Hardbody tells the story of a group of rural Texans competing against each other to win a Nissan pickup by enduring sleepless hours with their hands on the truck. Last one standing wins.

It’s expected that soon the truck symbolizes much more than what’s between its bumpers. A second chance. An escape route. A hope. And for some: just the act of pushing through to get something on the other end – in a world where opportunity is drying up – is simply reason enough.

It’s pure emotion pressurized by extreme conditions. And that, my folks, are the ingredients for great musical theatre.

Trey Anastasio’s (music) and Amanda Green’s (lyrics and music) folksy score is both simple and astounding. Green (who’s the daughter of celebrated lyricist and playwright Adolph Green) adeptly captures the hearts and souls of the ten contestants. She manages to use words and phrases that feel honest to these people without sacrificing their deep well of wants and desires.

Now, one could argue Hardbody veers into simplified sentimentality. Book writer Doug Wright does tend to treat his material with a face-value pragmatism. Combined with Green and Anastasio’s score, for some it may feel trite. For me, it felt right.

Listen. I know these people. I grew up in rural America. Sure, I had means, but I had friends and family who reflected what I saw onstage. My partner of 20 years does, too. I could hear his family saying the things these people say. Not a moment felt unearned or exploitative.

And, thankfully, Refuge Theatre’s music direction, by Jon Schneidman, harnesses the power of this gut-exposing ensemble. These folks can SING, and they lay it all out there. Tite band, too.

Christopher Pazdernik’s thoughtful direction is unfussy and clear. He lets the story present itself and allows the ensemble to shine.

One quibble. The cavernous Preston Bradley Center is certainly an evocative space, but it’s a bitch for a sound designer. The amplified voices often compete with the raucous band, sacrificing Green’s lyrics. I think this could be resolved by cutting the mics and dampening the drums. I have confidence this fierce ensemble can project.

“Hands on a Hardbody” plays through April 27. More info here >

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