OMAHA – The musical, “Hands on a Hardbody” opened Feb. 13 in the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Based on a 1990’s documentary of the same name, the OCP production is heartfelt, earnest and well-acted. This is a story about the “American Dream” and the millions of people who yearn to achieve it.
The play had a brief run on Broadway in 2013, and the story was updated to take place in the late ’00s instead of the ’90s, which allowed the playwright (Doug Wright) to talk about contemporary social and economic issues.
In the play, a local radio station and car dealership in Longview, Texas, are sponsoring the giveaway of a new, Nissan pick-up.
Contestants must stand with at least one hand touching the pick-up at all times, save for the occasional break. If they remove their hands from the truck, they’re out of the contest. The sleep deprived contestants go for several days until the last man or woman standing wins the new truck.
I saw the documentary in the theater in the late ’90s. It was a big influence on me, so I’ll admit that I went into this production with preconceived ideas about the story. I was also skeptical about how well it would work as a musical.
One of the strengths of the documentary is that it delves into serious, socio-economic issues while also being a very funny story about a quirky, small town tradition. The filmmaker grew up in Longview and approached his subjects with an inherent understanding and respect.
The musical remains faithful to its source material in many ways. The characters are closely based on their real-life counterparts and their economic struggles are central to the story. The problem is that the playwright crams every possible social issue into the story; outsourcing, unemployment, immigration, racism, PTSD and the struggling car industry were all touched upon. There is only enough time to skim the surface of each issue.
In this production, OCP Artistic Director Hilary Adams has assembled a cast full of consistently fine actors, including Iowa State alumnus and Chanticleer board member Chris Ebke as a Marine coping with PTSD. Other standout performers include the charming and silky voiced Nik Whitcomb as Ronald McCowan; Mark Thornburg’s honest and subtle performance as J.D. Drew; Omaha theatre veteran and skilled vocalist Rebecca Noble as funny and lovable Norma Valverde; Jeffrey Pierce shines as one of the play’s antagonists and has a strong voice made for pop-rock musicals. I also really enjoyed Christopher Scott as radio personality Frank Nugent, and Megan Ingram as the shallow sorority girl, Heather.
There were moments when the orchestra was louder than some of the singers, but that might have simply been due to some opening night kinks. Several musical numbers allowed the cast to shine. J.D. and wife Virginia (Marguerite Bennett) performed a tender duet, “Alone With Me.” The uplifting “Joy of the Lord,” led by the religious Norma (Noble) was a crowd pleaser and a whenever Benny (Pierce) got a chance to show off his musical chops, it was a win.
As always, Jim Othuse’s set design was excellent. He accurately evoked a grimy, struggling car dealership. The production team also went to impressive lengths to “cast” the central character – a bright red, Nissan pick-up. Rather than spend upwards of $10,000 renting or buying an appropriate vehicle, the theater purchased an old pick-up and partnered with Shadow Lake Collision Center to refurbish and modify it for the stage.
While I feel the musical itself has some flaws, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little lump in my throat at the end. Credit goes to this talented cast and their director for mounting a production full of love and honesty.