The red Nissan Hardbody truck onstage at the Waco Civic Theatre doesn’t have an engine, but it’s what outside it that counts in “Hands on a Hardbody.”
Outside it but still in contact are 10 contestants hoping, as audiences will find, that they outlast everyone else to win the truck and make their dreams come true.
A Texas car dealership’s truck giveaway may seem an unlikely subject for a stage musical, but the setup drives the action in the musical opening a two-weekend run on Friday.
Rules for the giveaway required contestants to stand next to the truck with one hand touching its body at all times, with a 15-minute break every six hours, until only one person is left. Contestants found, however, physical challenges of painful feet and legs, exhaustion and even hallucinations as the hours ticked by.
A 1997 documentary by the same title captured the experience of the 1995 contest in Longview, whose winner stayed on his feet — and hand in place — for 77 hours.
Inspired by the story, Doug Wright wrote the book and Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green the music for a 2012 musical that made its way to Broadway and three Tony Award nominations. “Hands on a Hardbody” is flavored with Americana, rock ’n’ roll, country and gospel music and, as one of the musical’s songs puts it, a “Human Drama Kind Of Thing.”
Director Richard Leslie, a veteran of the WCT stage, found a peculiar challenge in staging a musical with a truck as its physical center. There’s the problem of making sure the audience has sight lines to each of the 10 characters, particularly when one is speaking or singing. Mounting the truck on small wheels allowed it to turn in the course of the production and actors learned to shift to give others space.
There was the problem of characters dancing on the truck, solved by reinforcing the hood and roof with plywood. And, of course, the problem of performing with one hand on the truck at all times, solved through the power of suggestion and audience imagination, Leslie said with a smile.
Individual stories and desires surface in the course of the musical, but some characters get more attention, such as J.D. (Bob Sowder), who’s competing despite a leg still healing from an oil rig accident, much to the chagrin of his wife Virginia (Laura Meier-Marx); Janis (Glenda Hopper), whose husband Don (Win Emmons III) stands in solidarity on the sidelines; disc jockey Frank (Steven Cates), who provides commentary for the contest; and Benny (John Tripp), who won two years earlier, irritating other contestants by his return.
As bodies and wills fail, the contest brings some to realize what’s important in their lives. “They discover it’s not the truck that gives them happiness,” Leslie said. “In some ways, this show is about redemption.”
Joining the director are Lexie Rains as music director, Kelsey Ward as choreographer and Brian Crowder, leader of the accompanying instrumental combo .
Following its Waco run, the WCT production will repeat at Vive Les Arts Theatre in Killeen in April.