It’s always fun when a company decides to stage a show in a unique environment. For example, I’ve seen several shows at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul including Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s (MMT) own production of Daddy Long Legs. But tonight may be the most unique experience I’ve had. MMT staged Hands on a Hardbody at Luther Cadillac in Roseville. The space adds some challenges but it also lends the program an energy all it’s own. The show is immensely enjoyable, something we’ve come to expect from MMT, but this one sneaks insight into humanity as well. Here’s an affordable show (the unique seating system allows for everyone’s budget) to take the teenage kids to, where everyone is going to have a good time. It’s also a great way to expose people to the idea that theater doesn’t have to be seats facing a stage in a theatrical building. I think these exercises help to open people’s minds to new creative possibilities. I’m sure the artists behind this production found it challenging at times but I suspect it’s the type of challenges that result in new ideas and get the creative juices flowing in a rewarding way.
Hands On a Hardbody is based on the 1997 documentary film Hands on a Hardbody by S.R. Bindler. Remember when they used to make movies out of musicals rather than the other way round? Well, this is a case where the end results justifies its existence. The premise will be familiar, I’m fairly certain that any sitcom that lasts more than five seasons is required to have a show that uses this situation as a premise. Contestants are required to keep one hand on a pickup truck at all times except for during a 15 minute break every 6 hours. If your hands come off the truck you are out, the last person standing wins the truck. The setting is a Texas town that has seen better days, and the contest means more than just winning a new ride. Each contestant is in it for their own reasons. For one, it is a way to get a degree. For another, a way out of this town. And another, a way to start their own business. We have a nice cross section of people, an older man with some health issues, a soldier, a pair of young people who fall in love, a devout Christian, and of course there has to be a villain, in this case it’s the reigning champion who won a pick-up truck 2 years ago and has some tolerance issues. He’s not the only character that falls into the villain category but all those that do, are not traditional villains anyway. They all get some redemption and are not totally evil people.
I was surprised at the size of the cast considering the limited space, but then the circumstances of the play limit the amount of space needed to stage the show. There are 18 performers listed in the program. To be honest, not all of the performers were really up to the singing requirements. No one was terrible but the results were uneven across the cast. There were definitely some standouts vocally. Roland Hawkins II not only blew our socks of with his singing but he had enough charisma to energize the entire room. James Lane as Benny was another standout. Some performers had to struggle with songs that at times were pushing their range, the songs Lane performed were solidly in his sweet spot and he nailed them. Aly O’Keeffe doesn’t has as large a role as Hawkins or Lane, but she had a beautiful voice when she got the chance to sing. She shares a couple of songs with her characters husband J.D. played by Christian Unser. Unser can sing well, not great, but he compensates and elevates the singing with is acting. His J.D. was my favorite character and his final song with O’Keeffe found me surprisingly close to tears. One final performer I want to take note of is Emily Rosenberg. They play Greg, one half of the young bumper crossed lovers. I’ve noticed them a few times since the theaters reopened through their work with Theatre Pro Rata. Every once in awhile you come across an actor that you can just tell is someone to keep an eye on. Rosenberg has something, I don’t think we’ve seen their best work yet, but it’s coming.
There’s not much to say from a technical standpoint, the set is practically non-existent. One assumes that’s an actual truck and not something whipped up by the Scene Designer. If I’m wrong, then this is the greatest set design of any Twin Cities theater company, ever. But it’s a real truck. The direction by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha is perfect as it was with her last MMT show Be More Chill. She keeps what is basically a parked truck with people standing around it visually interesting. We get characters moving around the truck allowing us to see all of the characters wherever we may be seated. Some lively dance routines choreographed by Abbi Fern also help to keep the stationary subject matter from becoming static visually. The Ensemble lead by Music Director Jean Orbison Van Heel sounded great. I’m sure that was a relief given the space, you never think about the acoustics of a car dealership showroom. The one area the production did stumble on was the Lighting Design by Jeffrey R. Johnson. I’m sure it’s challenging to tear down and remount the lighting for each show, this is a car dealership that is in business during the day after all. But unless this was just an off night, they need to sort something better out, more than once the cast was left unlit or only partially lit. It was a distraction and the only real shortcoming of an otherwise successful show.
Hands on a Hardbody runs through May 8th. Tickets are limited to only 100 per performance, the range in price depending on your seating preference which includes a bring your own chair option and standing room. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.aboutmmt.org/tickets-2/
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