Theater review: ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ at ACT

IN IT TO WIN IT: The cast of 'Hands on a Hardbody,' (in which the onstage vehicle is a character in and of itself) compete for a new truck in hopes it will change their lives. Photo by Studio Misha

How far would you go to win a new vehicle? Would you endure days on end in the Texas summer heat? Would you let it define your future, win or lose? Those questions and more are on display, along with an actual pickup truck onstage, at Asheville Community Theatre, in the musical Hands on a Hardbody. The show runs through Sunday, June 30.

Based on a 1997 documentary, Hands is a strange concoction. It’s meant to show average folks struggling with life, work and their place in a world that seems to have passed them all by. At the same time, it’s meant to be an entertaining romp.

Director Jerry Crouch and choreographer Shari Azar find ways to keep it interesting. The truck is rigged to allow it to rotate 360 degrees, delivering different angles and looks. The actors spin the truck into position, climbing and dancing on it at times, lending interest to what could otherwise be a very static show.

The main character in this ensemble is Benny Perkins, who represents the absolute worst of toxic masculinity. Newcomer Paul Gerber captivates in the role, embodying Perkins in such a way that the audience feels sorry for him, despite his horrible beliefs. He bonds with Dan Baechtold’s aging oil rig worker, who feels emasculated after an injury cost him his job. Baechtold is the broken heart of this show, but it’s Audrey Wells as his devoted but tragic wife who wows with her song, “Alone With Me.”

Filling out the ranks are Adam Lentini as a soldier recently returned from war (in the best performance this reviewer has seen him give on the ACT stage), Jay Allen Ponton as a fast talking and amiable man (and, as an African American, one target of Benny Perkins’ racist ire) stands out with his stellar singing and charming acting.

Lau Magie plays a devout Christian who believes that God will help her win the truck, putting her at odds with almost everyone there, most of whom have lost their own faith. Magie has several epic solos that elevate the show. Andy Thompson and Sara Terry are equally compelling as a young couple who meet and fall in love and find purpose with each other to inspire them beyond their small-town lives. Aaron Ybarra is Jesus Peña, a Latin man, who wants to win so he can sell the truck to pay for college. He’s the focus of several racist assumptions that he is not American, nor does he deserve to be.

Tiffanie Boone and Dillon Giles are a great comedy duo as the managers of the car lot and provide many laughs that divert from the static main plot of the show.

The music was written by Trey Anastasio of the band Phish, with lyrics by Amanda Green. And while each character gets a moment to shine, the music is mostly forgettable save a couple of numbers. Benny’s “God Answered My Prayers” carries the most weight. In fact, the show slyly has a lot to say but keeps it cleverly buried under the circuslike central concept.

WHAT: Hands on a Hardbody
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, June 30. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $15-$30

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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