waco civic theater "hands on a hard body" (copy)
Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte

The Waco Civic Theatre picked the musical "Hands On A Hardbody" a year ago, but its performance this and last weekend seems well-timed for the Trump years.

It's not political, outside of common attitudes in conservative 1990s Texas, but doesn't mock the largely blue-collar contestants vying for a new Nissan Hardbody truck. It's a musical whose comedy and drama comes naturally out of people and situations, and one that treats its characters as individuals more than stereotypes — something we could use more of these days. 

Oh, and it's got an enjoyable combination of good music, some talented actors, a few infectious numbers, a little Texas-based humor and a touch of inventive choreography/rhythm play.

Based on a 1990s Longview car dealership promotion where the last person standing with his or her hand touching a new truck (in this case, a Nissan Hardbody) would win it, the musical follows 10 contestants in what would prove a grueling test of endurance.

Interpersonal dynamics play out as the hours tick by. Outspoken and admitted redneck Janis Curtis (Glenda Preston Hopper) has her husband Don (Win Emmons III) standing in solidarity on the sidelines. J.D. Drew (Bob Sowder), who's nursing a leg shattered in an oil rig accident, is trying to win the truck to pay crushing medical bills and lost salary, against the wishes of his concerned wife Virginia (Laura Meier-Marx). Norma Valverde (Hannah Gilmore) leans on the invisible support of prayer warriors from her church while aspiring model Heather Stovall (Tori Chron) has a suspicious connection to car dealer and contest promoter Mike Ferris (Micah Key), one that frustrates, then angers fellow car salesman Cindy Barnes (Kami Ellis-Yasko, who shows a fine comic touch).

Some find support in other contestants. Kelli Mangrum (Alyssa Riggs) and Greg Wilhote (Joey Tamayo) bond over a common desire to leave town and start over. Ronald McCowan (Brian Johnson) connects with others around the truck more than his family at home.

Others go solo. Arrogant past winner Benny Perkins (John Tripp) actively plays to psych out his competition. Marine Chris Alvaro (Tyler Christensen) is still haunted by his deployment to Iraq (first Gulf War). Jesus Pena (Trey Shonkwiler), a native Texan from Laredo, wants to set up a veterinary practice, though he's viewed by others as an illegal alien.

It's the humanity revealed during the contest — and the occasional surprise — that gives it appeal and power as radio DJ Frank Nugent (Steve Cates) announcing departing contestants.

To his credit, playwright Doug Wright sidesteps what could be stereotypes in other hands. The religious Valverde (whose number "Joy of the Lord" Gilmore sings with an impressive gospel flair) is good for some laughs, but is never mocked for her faith. Another character finds meaning in a spiritual breakdown, confessed in "God Answered My Prayers," but, again, one that's not derided. Hispanic Pena reacts to external comments with an defiant "Born In Laredo."

Some cast members sing better than others, some act better than dance, but it all works in a story that celebrates the ordinary person trying to get ahead in life or find a place in a changing world ("Used To Be" bemoans the dying small town, for instance). It's telling that in a contest with only one winner, an epilogue "Keep Your Hands On It" shows all the contestants finding some good from their hands-on time on the Nissan.

Director Richard Leslie keeps the viewer's eye traveling despite the central focus of a truck onstage, having the truck move, shifting bodies around the truck or coming upstage for highlighted songs. Choreographer Kelsey Ward adds some clever touches with actors, particularly Chron, Riggs and Gilmore, dancing in place with one hand touching the Hardbody.

Music director Lexie Rains, band leader Brian Crowder amd a five-player combo do a solid job with the largely pop and country score, with one highlight a rousing ensemble piece "Joy of the Lord" whose gospel fervor would not be out of place on a Sunday morning.

"Hands On A Hardbody" continues its run this weekend with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (Feb. 1-3) and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the theater, 1517 Lake Air Drive. Tickets are $20-16 depending on the performance, available online at wacocivictheatre.org

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor