Performing Arts

‘Hands on a Hardbody’ offers vivid characters and strong performances

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

Sara Kennedy plays Kelli, a young UPS worker, in “Hands on a Harbody” at the Unicorn Theatre. Daniel Beeman, in background, plays Greg.
Sara Kennedy plays Kelli, a young UPS worker, in “Hands on a Harbody” at the Unicorn Theatre. Daniel Beeman, in background, plays Greg. Special to The Star

Quality performances elevate the Unicorn Theatre’s production of “Hands on a Hardbody,” a quirky musical that blends feel-good vibes with edgy humor.

This show, which opens the Unicorn’s season, proclaims its flaws without apology. It’s noisy and chaotic with a sometimes awkward structure, and yet the material offers broad-brushed but thoughtfully drawn characters brought to life by a fine cast. A number of these actors are familiar to regular theatergoers, some aren’t. But under Missy Koonce’s direction they team up to extract every ounce of juice from an amusing script and a collection of songs of variable quality.

Based on a documentary film about a real contest at a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, “Hands on a Hardbody” depicts a grueling competition in which contestants have one simple task: Keep their hands on a new truck longer than anyone else and they get to drive it home. The contestants are an ethnically diverse group of blue-collar folks. Some have menial jobs. Some are unemployed. Some are white. Some are black. Some are driven by religious fervor, others are purely materialistic. In playwright Doug Wright’s script, each of them is pursuing his or her own particular version of the American Dream.

The songs by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio are a mixed bag. Some of them are exhilarating while others sound like they weren’t left in the oven long enough. It’s mostly show music, although the score draws from country, gospel, pop and rock. The show’s major strength is its unconventional calling card: This is anything but a generic musical.

Koonce, a veteran of Late Night Theatre, is generally thought of as a “camp” director, but in this production she shows us that she’s capable of more. This production has heart — lots of it — and her actors commit themselves emotionally without reservation. The results are surprising and inspiring. Most remarkable of all is Tim Scott as the central figure in the show, a rednecky character named Benny. Scott has a long track record as a song-and-dance man with an infectious sense of humor. He brings those talents to “Hardbody,” but he also delivers a performance of uncommon dramatic depth as a man who, in the later stages of the contest, has to face some difficult realities about himself.

Marc Liby is quietly believable as J.D., an oil-field worker fired after a devastating injury and the oldest contestant. Victoria Barbee gives us deeply felt performance as Norma, a religious woman who believes she’s got God in her corner. A de-glamorized Cathy Barnett scores some major laughs as Janis, a down-on-her-luck woman missing a few teeth. And Jessalyn Kincaid gives us a sharply delineated performance as Heather, a small-town sexpot who enjoys a “special” relationship with the dealership’s manager.

Francisco Javier Villegas is highly memorable as Jesus, who plans to sell the truck if he wins it to pay for veterinary school. Sara Kennedy exhibits a great set of pipes and athletic dance moves as Kelli, a young UPS worker. Daniel Beeman impresses as Greg, a would-be stuntman who falls for Kelli during the contest. Sam Salary exercises a booming voice as Ronald, a good-natured guy who believes a steady supply of candy bars will get him through the contest. And Shea Coffman lends gravity to the show as Chris, a serious-minded Marine Corps veteran.

The supporting players include the amusing Martin Buchanan as the wacky Don, Janis’s husband and Julie Shaw as the quietly compassionate Virginia, J.D.’s wife. Vincent Onofrio Monachino delivers an outsized comic performance as Frank, an unctuous “radio personality.” Matthew James McAndrew is fun to watch as Mike, the dealership’s oily manager, and Trista Smith gets some of the biggest laughs of the night as Cindy, a dealership employee handling the contest’s public relations.

Each of these actors find an underlying reality to the characters, no matter how ridiculous they may be. That lends a much-needed degree of credibility to the show. The production has a nice look and feel thanks to Alex Perry’s lighting and scenic designs. (A real truck occupies center stage, by the way.) Georgianna Londre Buchanan’s costumes are understated but serve the comic nature of the show.

Ultimately, “Hardbody” is just a little too life-affirming for my taste. Yes, there are losers and bitter pills for them to swallow. But they all return to the stage in the final minutes to sing about how the contest made them stronger and wiser. It’s an upbeat finale that feels tacked-on.

Regardless, this production delivers exceptional performances. That alone is inspiring enough for me.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

“Hands on a Hardbody” runs through Sept. 28 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.org.

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