What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the title “Hands on a Hardbody”?
Yeah, I thought so. Shame on you.
In fact, the musical by Doug Wright, Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio is based on a 1997 documentary about an endurance competition in Longview, Texas. The last remaining person to keep his hands glued to a pickup drives off with the prize.
No leaning, no squatting. But lots of singing, knavery, hanky-panky, sleep deprivation, hallucinating and a few last-minute flickers of grace and redemption.
"Hands on a Hardbody," which enjoyed a short-lived Broadway run in 2013 and is now at Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, is a show of some ingenuity: a showcase for a group of indelible characters; a passel of catchy, country-rock songs and, alas, a rather static setup.
Indeed, it is hard to dance, hard to move the story forward, when your hands are attached to the side of a red Nissan. But dang if director Brian Clowdus’ ensemble doesn’t give it a run for the money — depicting a bunch of hard-scrabble desperadoes who scarf Snicker bars, pop speed, blow gaskets and leave skid marks on our hearts as the contest drags on … and on … and on. (About 2 1/2 hours in real time, or almost four days in the time of the play.)
As a pair of car-dealership types (played by Jeremy Aggers and Jessica Miesel) chew their knuckles, a radio announcer (Matthew Morris) narrates, and a couple of spouses (Wendy Melkonian and Steve Hudson) cheer from the sidelines, the others hold on for dear life, and we get to hear what compels them to compete.
JD Drew (Matt Lewis) has been sidelined by an oil-rig injury. Jesús Peña (Ricardo Aponte) wants to finish veterinary college. Norma Valverde (Diany Rodriguez) believes her faith will see her through. And twangy Janis Curtis (Jill Hames) has many mouths to feed back home.
Aggers’ slippery Mike Ferris has his own business problems at the car dealership, but if he can finagle a sexy winner, he might sell more cars. (Enter Laura Floyd’s Heather Stoval.)
Meanwhile, Greg Wilhote (Benjamin Davis) takes a shine to Kelli Mangrum (Randi Garza), and ex-Marine Chris Alvaro (Jeremy Wood) discovers he has a connection with the bigoted Benny Perkins (Rob Lawhon), a previous winner who lost his vehicle when his marriage went south. Poor Ronald McCowan (Eric Moore) is doomed almost from the get-go.
Rodriguez may be the best singer in the bunch of car clingers — her free-form gospel hootenanny “Joy of the Lord” is a highlight of the show — but she’s in fine vocal company with the likes of Moore, Garza, Wood and Floyd. (With Aponte, not so much.)
Miesel’s pretty hilarious as the pert, big-haired Texan Cindy Barnes, who will become frazzled as the contest wears on. Hames channels the backwoods patois of Janis, who smells a rat in the machinations of Heather and Mike (“It’s a Fix”).
Appropriately pedestrian costumes are by Elizabeth Rasmusson, and the shiny Nissan dealership of a set is by Shannon Robert.
While the first half gets off to a kicky start — Anastasio, who contributes the music, is of the rock band Phish — the second half loses velocity, as if the show itself is suffering from a lack of shut-eye. Wright’s book seems to chug along on empty, and some of the bits about broken dreams and promises feel a little trite. Still, hand-tied though they may be, this hard-working bunch of players keep on truckin’ until the bittersweet end.