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'Hands on a Hardbody': A winner with Houston audiences

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Hands on a Hardbody

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TUTS Underground brings to the stage another fun, lively musical "Hands on a Hardbody". This musical is based on the 1997 documentary film of the same name that chronicles an endurance competition that took place in Longview, Texas. This competition pitted twenty-four people against each other to see who could keep their hand on a pick up the longest so that they could drive away in it.

This musical officially premiered on Broadway in March 2013. Doug Wright wrote the book with music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green. Green also wrote the lyrics for this blue collar, honest musical. The lyrics are reminiscent of the beauty that can be found in honesty and dreams, even if that dream is just to win a truck. The musical was well received and although did not bring home a win was nominated for three Tony's including Best Original Score and nods for both leads.

The truck, the main prop that is the same from the original Broadway production is quite the sight. Michelle Gaudette uses the truck to her advantage and adds an interesting element in her choreography where the cast members must find a way to dance and move without removing their hands from the truck. Gaudette skillfully has the actors move around stage in order to engage the audience and make each exit that much more dynamic and moving.

A rare treat this Texas premiere brings home a musical fit for the local stage. A cast of talented actors brings to life these down on their luck dreamers of being truck owners with emotions any Texan would understand. This musical is filled with show stopping numbers yet it truly succeeds because of each of these characters. As the show goes on, audiences become more invested in the lives and struggles of each character as they attempt to be the last remaining contestant standing with their hand on the truck.

The cast ranges from a prejudice man and previous winner to an elderly man to a woman praising Jesus to former Marine to a young man dreaming of attending school and that's only about half the cast members. Each "contestant" has a story, reason for why they want the truck for family, job, pride or just the pure joy of winning but by the end, each contestant has a place in our heart, and we root for each to keep standing.

As a previous year’s winner, Benny Perkins played by Drew Starlin plays a multi-layered character with something to prove. He seems dismissed by other contestants for his brash personality and the fact he had won before, and despite his hard exterior, audiences find themselves swept away by his touching and heartbreaking story. Playing alongside, Tyce Green, as former Marine Chris Alvaro, these two create an interesting dynamic on stage. Green seems a rather lone character, standing solitary, yet gets to shine especially with his poignant number “Stronger”. He is both tender and moving leaving the audiences reaching for a tissue or two.

Kevin Cooney as J.D. Drew the underdog and “buddy” of Benny. This unlikely pair team up to be the last remaining. Audiences can’t help but fall for Cooney as a tender, kind hearted yet stubborn man. Theresa Nelson plays his wife, Virginia Drew. She is one of the few supporters for the contestants. Her tender number “Alone With Me” puts her center stage. The pull between her and other supporters shows just how real this competition gets.

Brad Zimmerman as Don Curtis is another fellow supporter of his wife, Janis played by Susan Koozin. These two make an interesting pair. They are very loving and affectionate made obvious by their fun yet truthful number “If She Don’t Sleep”. The love that the pair has is obvious yet Janis is quite the firecracker, which is evident with her number “It’s a Fix”. Koozin brings Janis to life and gives the audience some laughs and provides one of the most memorable characters of the production.

Cole Ryden as Greg Wilhote and Betty Marie Muessig as Kelli Mangrum steal the audience’s hearts with their budding romance. The pair quickly gets closer as they stand in the Texas heat and realize that they both dream of escape in their duet “I’m Gone”.

Donnie Hammond plays Norma Valverde, a stay at home mom and devout Christian, who is attempting to win the truck for her family. She has an infectious personality that seeps out into the audience and you can’t help but be swept away in her beliefs and reverence. Her praise runs over into the other contestants and her vocals are brought center stage with her gospel performance of “Joy of the Lord”.

Julia Krohn plays struggling waitress Heather Stovall. Her audiences get to see the seedy underbelly of competitions and get to witness her character struggle between ambition and morals. Krohn puts her heart out there are her character struggles internally with the guilt of her actions. “Burn that Bridge” offers a candid, open glimpse into the struggle this young character faces.

John Ryan DelBosque plays Jesus Peña a hopeful veterinarian student wishing to attend Texas A&M. His number “Born in Loredo” steals the show. His flawless vocals and power behind his voice leaves the audience wanting to jump to their feet. Anthony Boggess-Glover's Ronald McCowan offers jovial and amusing moments throughout the production. His number “My Problem Right There” gives the audience a chance to hear his powerful, toned voice while also highlighting his wit.

Putting on the whole contest are Michael Tapley's Mike Ferris, the sleazy car salesman who is both underhanded and entertaining. Brooke Wilson as Cindy Barnes who is the contest adjudicator, who isn’t as straight forward as she might appear. Mark X Laskowski’s Frank Nugent the radio host reporting all the contest events captures all the excitement and emotion for his audience. The trio brilliantly brings to life the title number “Hands on a Hardbody” at the start of Act II, which gets the audience back in competition mode after intermission.

This musical brings Texas culture center stage, the small town mentality mixed with the simple fact, you live in Texas you have to own a truck. It has mass appeal because everyone can relate to a desire for something more. Although literally for these contestants it's a truck, but it represents something more to them than just that. It is about being able to get out on your own, get back on your feet, take a trip, or go to school.

Life is filled with moments a choices and we have to understand what motivates us to do what we do and fight for what we want. What are we willing to stand with our hand on to get? Universally, we relate to seeing what we want within our reach, understanding what we need to do to get it and doing whatever it takes to see it through. Everything we do teaches us about ourselves and shows us more insight into the person we truly are and this musical reminds us sometimes it's not about winning, but growing, loving and never giving up on the things we want most.

"Hands on a Hardbody" is playing now through June 22 in Zilkha Hall in The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. For ticket information, visit TUTS Underground site at www.tutsunderground.com, call the box office at 713-558-8887 or stop by the box office located at 800 Bagby St. Mon-Fri during the hours of 9 am to 6 pm and Sat-Sun during the hours of 11 am to 4 pm.

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