With Hands on a Hardbody, Theatre Three Finally Drives a Musical Home

Like many Broadway musicals these days, Hands on a Hardbody was adapted from a movie. But unlike others, it came not from a splashy animated feature but from an obscure 1997 documentary by S.R. Bindler about an endurance contest at a Longview truck dealership that awarded a lipstick-red Nissan to the last man or woman standing, gloved hand still planted on the vehicle.

Now parked onstage at Theatre Three in the Quadrangle in a finely tuned-up production directed and set-designed by Jeffrey Schmidt (who also helmed On the Eve), Hardbody has the tough job of driving a dozen different stories while most of its characters are idling onstage, glued hand-to-truck for much of the two-and-a-half-hour show. Choreographer Zenobia Taylor has found clever ways to unstick them now and then, like during the short breaks allowed marathoners during a contest that goes on for days. The truck moves, too, which allows arena-style audience sections to get views from all sides.

Everybody in this thing rings true, thanks to a smart, unfussy book by Doug Wright, the Highland Parky who won a Pulitzer for I Am My Own Wife and who wrote the book for the musical Grey Gardens. (He also acted in T3 shows as a kid.) The score is a pleasant, bouncy blend of gospel, rock and country with music by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and lyrics by Amanda Green (lyricist for another short-running Broadway musical, High Fidelity, and co-lyricist for Bring It On: The Musical, which came to Dallas Summer Musicals a few seasons back).

Hardbody starts out low-key, introducing the individual contestants, before revving into the second act's acts of attrition as one by one, they drop their hands and truck off. The characters onstage are blessed with names of real-life Hands on a Hardbody documentary subjects. Wright, who attended the first weekend of shows at T3, said that in prepping the musical, a private detective tracked down the real people and got permission to use their names and stories. Several attended the September 28 preview of the Dallas production, one of the first regional ones since the blink-and-miss-it Broadway run last year. (The show was reviewed at the September 27 preview.)

Dallas actor Jim Johnson plays oldest contestant J.D. Drew, an aging oilfield worker who's lost his job. His wife, Virginia, played with loving looks by Delynda Moravec, watches from the sidelines as J.D. physically suffers through the contest. "You'd do anything to keep from being alone with me," she sings. He ponders the insanity of the event differently. "Funny, ain't it?" he says. "American dream. Japanese car."

Nancy Sherrard is so hangdog authentic as Janis Curtis, a one-paycheck-from-poverty trailer park wife, it's hard to remember the actress in those sophisticated comedies she's done at Stage West. Here she looks like one of the People of Wal-mart, gray hair tied back like long strands of barbed wire. John Jones plays her adoring husband, Don, who joins Janis in a rousing number about the 20-ton air conditioner they're so proud of. Sherrard's delivery of the line "We found out pretty fast that it'll freeze a pet to death" is slap-the-knees hilarious.

Lanky Garret Storms slings his shoulder-length hair around as would-be stuntman Greg Wilhote, holding the back bumper alongside Molly Welch's Kelli Mangrum, a UPS worker with a desire to get the truck out to Hollywood. (Their romance was created just for the show, says Wright. The script needed a romantic hook. Storms and Welch, both fine singers, create believable sparks.)

Leah Clark is Norma Valverde, the hard-praying Jesus nut who believes the Good Lord wants her to have new wheels. She stands, appropriately, next to the character named Jesus Pena (Sergio Antonio Garcia), a bilingual student who has to defend his American citizenship. Chris Alvaro (Chris Ramirez) is the troubled Marine with the 1,000-yard stare. Ronald McCowan (Major Attaway, the best singer on the stage) has weight problems and a chocolate addiction. You wonder if all the candy he's eating for stamina won't bring about his early exit from the contest. Token cheerleader/bimbo Heather Stovall (Monet Lerner) may or may not be predetermined to win thanks to hanky-panky with snaky dealership manager Mike (Aaron Roberts). Martha Harms plays the contest hostess, fake-grinning so hard her cheeks must hurt. She's perfection in roles like that.

The "expert" in the group of contestants is Benny Perkins (Ashley Wood, the weakest singer but acting his way out of his big songs). He's a previous winner back to defend his title and maybe win another pickup, which might persuade his angry wife to move back home. When alliances start to form, a la Survivor, Benny teams with J.D. to try to make it to the final two.

It's a lot to squeeze into one show, so it helps that the momentum stays up to speed in the second half. Lyrics are sometimes turned to mush by Theatre Three's always dodgy sound mixing, and a too-loud band (at times) led by Sheilah Walker from a platform in the corner. Listen closely to pick up the sharp digs at Wal-mart, Walgreens, Wendy's, Applebee's and other name chains that have polluted small-town life in Texas. Hardbody may be set in a Red State, but there are Blue State attitudes throughout regarding racism, ageism, religious fanaticism, corporate greed and the grinding sadness of have-nots in a must-have world.

Hands on a Hardbody never takes swipes at its characters, however. Lined up around that shiny truck, they are symbols of the America that doesn't often get a chance to shine in Broadway musicals. They wear mullets and don't use the right verb tenses. Dang it, they're good people though, just looking for a little glory and a nice ride that'll take them a mile or two closer to that American dream. In a Japanese truck.