REVIEW: Pick Up and Go See ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ at Oakland University

Timing is everything.

When Hands on a Hardbody arrived on Broadway in 2013, it ran for just 28 shows before the curtain came down. Many probably mused at how a musical about 10 down-on-their-luck Texans trying to win a truck was even relevant. Well, a lot can change in three years, and the Oakland University School of Music, Theatre and Dance couldn’t have picked a timelier subject to bring back to the stage.

Based on true events and a 1997 documentary of the same name, the story centers on six men and four women who all share the same objective: to be the last person standing with their hands on a cherry-red Nissan truck (aka, a hardbody). As stage director David Gram points out in his notes, Hands on a Hardbody is a story about deep-rooted humanity – an ideal many of us probably long to experience again given our current cultural climate.

Photo credit: JLBoone Photography

Each contestant has his or her own reason for wanting to win the truck, but the common bonds they share are the pain of loss and the hope for brighter days. The truck and its contestants serve as a microcosm of our society. They’re all chasing their version of the American Dream, even if it comes in the form of a Japanese truck. And yet it soon becomes evident that for all of them, there is much more riding on this contest than just winning. Over the course of nearly four days in the unrelenting Texas weather, alliances are formed, unlikely friendships are made, and at one point the contestant’s survival instincts kick in as they close ranks on another contestant to further their own agenda. And that’s when you realize Hardbody is eerily like Survivor and the island is a flatbed in Nissan car lot. But that’s the thing about hard times and being forced to be with people you may not normally interact with. You’re suddenly forced to face ideals you may not agree with like racism (“Born in Laredo”) and faith. Or hot-button topics like immigration and unemployment. Hardbody subtly addresses these topics in a way where you don’t feel as if you’re being clobbered over the head to agree, but rather are being given a gentle nudge to consider the other side of the coin.

And the other side to Hardbody is pure fun. Its Tony-award nominated score features country-rock melodies and soulful lyrics by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, who also wrote the lyrics for Bring It On: The Musical with Lin Manuel Miranda. Hat tip (preferably 10-gallon) to musical directors Alissa Hetzner and Andrew Toering, and choreographer Greg Patterson for bringing this musical to life at Oakland University. The show gets off to a roaring start with the rock-like anthem, “Human Kind of Drama.” Here, we get a glimpse at the powerful vocal performances that dominate this show. Seriously. Throughout the evening you will be treated to rich harmonies that weave together like a beautiful tapestry, and each note washes over the audience like a familiar friend. Other standout songs include “My Problem Right There,” featuring the always enjoyable Tony Sharpé as Ronald McCowan, a young man who allows former winner Benny Perkins (played with swagger by Tyler Bolda) to easily get the best of him. Three of the female contestants: Kelli Mangrum (Paige VanSickle), Heather Stovall (Grace Rosen), and Norma Valverde (Kristin Rebera) serve as Ronald’s backup singers/dancers, adding a hilarious component. Probably my favorite song out of the show is “Joy of the Lord.” In the first act, Kristin Rebera takes us to church and by the time the rest of the ensemble joins in, you’ve got a gospel revival mixed with STOMP! This piece is not only enjoyable, but also impressive to witness. Then, in act two, the song gets a reprise. Only this time it’s slow and A cappella, which puts the vocals of Tony Sharpé, Andrew Muylle (who plays Marine Chris Alvaro), and Kristin Rebera in the spotlight; where they belong.

Who wins the contest? You’ll have to go see for yourself and I highly recommend you do. Go to be uplifted and to be reminded of the human spirit’s resiliency. After all, as the cast sings in the closing number, no matter what life throws at us, ‘If you want something… keep your hands on it!’

The performance runs two hours and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

All performances take place at the Varner Studio Theatre in Varner Hall on the campus of Oakland University (OU). Tickets are $20 general admission, $12 for students and the 10:00 a.m. matinee. They may be purchased online without service fees at StarTickets.com or by phone at 800-585-3737. They can also be purchased at the Varner Box Office on OU’s campus.

  • Thursday, March 29 at 8:00 p.m.
  • Friday, March 30 at 8:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 31 at 2:00 p.m.* and 8:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, April 3 at 8:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday, April 4 at 8:00 p.m.
  • Thursday, April 5 at 8:00 p.m.
  • Friday, April 6 at 10:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.*
  • Saturday, April 7 at 2:00 p.m.

* Shadow-signed for the Deaf by Synergy on Stage

About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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