SALT LAKE — Hands on a Hardbody is a 2013 Broadway musical based on a documentary of the same name. The story follows ten contestants who are tasked with being the last one to have their hands on a truck, the winner being able to take home the truck. During the contest the audience learns the lives of the ten contestants, the radio announcer, and the car dealer.
If you had told me that after watching a show about people in Texas trying to win a truck, I would be walking down the street with my 12-year-old daughter having a deep conversation about life, love, priorities, and understanding, I probably would have laughed. However, I had that experience a few hours ago after leaving the matinee of Wasatch Theatre Company’s production.
In Wasatch Theatre Company’s black box theatre in a space at the Gateway mall in Salt Lake City, set designer Madeline Ashton has placed a minimal representation of a truck in the middle of the stage, and there is a space set aside for the live music team: conductor and pianist Anne Puzey, guitarist Emily Hackworth, violinist Katie Frandsen, and percussionist Justin Lord. The live music is such a beautiful and essential element of the production. Puzey has a masterful command of the score and brings a feeling to the show that I only feel when live music is part of the production. Her team excels at bringing the catchy tunes to life that is well matched with the cast’s beautiful vocals that Puzey also shapes through her musical direction.
The opening number of the show, “Human Drama Kind of Thing,” starts out with with a character who won the competition two years ago, Benny, played by John Patrick McKenna. In the beginning, Benny comes across as a hardened, bitter man who is bent on winning this competition at all costs, but his character grows throughout the story in both positive and negative ways emotionally. McKenna portrays this character arch well, and the night I saw the production during the second act song, “God Answered My Prayers,” I was openly weeping about the challenges and strength of humanity represented in that one moment.
Choreographer Marilyn Montgomery has a good understanding of how to use a small stage to benefit the actors and the movement of the show. When I first read the synopsis, I was a bit concerned about how the space at Wasatch would fit so many characters, and how a 2-hour show could possibly give enough time to build any sense of empathy for the characters. I found my concerns unfounded on both counts for Montgomery had found ways to work the choreography to highlight certain people in solo or in small ensemble numbers like in, “If She Don’t Sleep,” with the endearing couple Janis, played by Liz Whittaker, and her husband, Don, played by Kurt Christensen, and in the superbly staged, “If I Had This Truck,” with its striking choreography as well as impressive storytelling.
A stand-out character within the story is Norma (played by Casey Matern), a woman who relies on her faith to get her through the contest. Matern sings a show stopping number called, “Joy of The Lord,” that has the cast utilizing the truck as a percussion instrument and that almost had the audience on their feet with Matern’s enthusiastic vocals. What impressed me more was how Matern was able to authentically build connection with the other characters and the audience. At a pivotal moment in the show, two characters, Ronald, played by Andrew Taula, and Chris, played by Derek Gregerson, touchingly come to support Norma. The moment helps bring the greater message of the show home: that the human connections we make are the things we need to hold on to.
The song, “Born in Laredo,” sung by Jesus, played by John Valdez, was haunting in both performance and message. In the song, Jesus calls out the sad yet not uncommon racism that can tell someone to go back to where they came from. Jesus was born in Texas, and his family came to the United States in a similar way to most people throughout U.S. history have come: through hope and dreams of a better life. As we walked and talked, my young biracial daughter stated that was her favorite song, because she has had kids on the playground ask her where she was from and why she didn’t just stay there. The best theater is the kind that addresses these issues head on and gives everyone in the audience something to ponder. This show looks at the challenges of life, work, money, parenting, racism, and faith, and does so in a way that respects all sides of the story and all people in the story.
The cast and crew at Wasatch Theatre Company connected with the story and worked to bring the story’s heart right into the audience. The space is intimate and the cast works to make the audience feel a strong part of the action. I could spend more time than my limited article allows discussing how each cast member and crew member worked to make this an exquisite show, but I think the most important thing I can say is that this is a show worth experiencing. The story is worth hearing, and the team has pulled off a fine production with little to criticize. When a production can take a genre of music that is not usually appealing to me and a story that seemed on the outset to be unable to grab my attention, and turn it into one of the best musical productions I have seen in Utah Theatre, they deserve high praise indeed. Hands on a Hardbody helped me remember the important things I need to hold on to; good theatre that touches my life is one of those things I will continue to hold on to dearly.