Wednesday, June 24, 2015
'Hands on a Hardbody' in Bloomfield, NJ
If anything good came of the very short Broadway life of 'Hands on a Hardbody', it is that community theaters across the country are quickly picking up on its charm. Last year, I saw the show in Albany, so this was my third go-round. That put this production in the unenviable position of being compared to the others, but on the other hand, it allowed me to focus on the details rather than the show on a whole.
That worked well for this production by 4th Wall Theatre at Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield, N.J., because the details are exactly where its strengths were, so much so that there was no actual truck on stage, just a frame of red pipe in the vague shape of a truck. That was a bold move for the prop that is the centerpiece of the show.
The daring choice worked. Removing the focus from the shiny red beauty was a reminder that the show is not about the truck at all, but about the people keeping their hands on it, trying so hard to realize their dreams to sell it to pay for schooling (Jesus, played to perfection by Adrian Rifat), use it for work (Ronald, played by Marcus Turnage with all right amounts of humor, bravado and naïveté, and who has one of my favorite lines, taken directly from the original documentary film - "car don't make money, truck make money"), or get the hell out of Longview, Texas, for good (Kelli, played by the excellent Erin Long, and Greg, played by David Manglione with a softer touch).
Now that the audience could see through the truck, there was never a moment when the actors were not visible, even if they stood in the back doing nothing but waiting as the others sang and acted out their scenes. It was a reminder that as the hours dragged on, and whatever mini-dramas were playing out, these determined contestants were all standing there, waiting patiently for their ship to come in. James Lopez as Don Curtis was great at this background stuff. I kept finding myself looking to the back of the stage to see what he was up to as the 24-7 cheerleader for his wife, Janis.
Jodi Freeman Maloy brought a whole new spark to Janis. I dare say, I found her more relatable than even the great Dale Soules in the Broadway production. For the first time, I was happy to hear "It's a Fix" and I enjoyed every snappy comeback and eye-roll. Plus, in the charming duet with Don ("If She Don't Sleep"), she nailed those low notes that I thought for sure only Ms. Soules could ever hit. Mrs. Maloy played Janis less hillbilly and more sassy which, I admit, puts her farther away from the true Janis of the film, but still works much better here.
Many of the up-close highlights in this production came from the non-contestant characters, like Virginia Drew, portrayed by Christine Orzepowski who beautifully brought out the character's heartache underneath the steadfast loyalty to her longtime husband, J.D. (Howard Fischer bringing on the stubbornness that pays off in the end). As she sang "Alone With Me" just a few feet in front of me - I was in the front row, natch - the gentle grace of her quiet but strong moment was genuinely moving.
Madison Washer's take on dealership employee Cindy Barnes was a treat, too. Like the Cindys of the previous productions, she provided comic relief in her wonderfully tacky outfits and interactions with the contestants. But when she got serious for her in-your-face confrontation with boss Mike Ferris (Todd Schumpert capturing that character's unraveling from being in way over his head), you knew she meant business. Making that quick switch from funny to fearsome is no small feat.
Also extremely impressive was the band. This was the only production in which I could see the musicians and it was a delight to watch the multi-instrumental talents of Sam Schuman as he switched between guitar, mandolin and violin. And Colleen Clark kept things light but solid on the drums.
It is extremely difficult to be succinct when reviewing a show like this that has no particular protagonist and antangonist. One could argue that Benny Perkins (played here with all the right competitive hubris, humor, and in the end, vulnerability, by Danny Arnold) is the main character, but if you watch the original documentary film, it is only because he has the biggest mouth.
"A Note from the Dramaturge" in the booklet for this production makes a comparison to 'A Chorus Line'. But 'Hardbody' resonates where 'Chorus' does not because its stories are universal. These people are not looking for a part in a play - they are looking to get their lives going. They are stuck in the rut of Longview and are longing to move up, move out, or move on. This play will be timeless for that reason, and the members of 4th Wall can stand proud for having done it justice. Each cast member in this production dug deep and brought out the heart and soul of his or her character.