Refuge Theatre lifts Hands on a Hardbody out of complete banality | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Refuge Theatre lifts Hands on a Hardbody out of complete banality 

"If you want something," they sing, "keep your hands on it."

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click to enlarge The cast of Hands on a Hard Body from Refuge Theatre Project

The cast of Hands on a Hard Body from Refuge Theatre Project

Nick Roth

Based on S.R. Bindler's 1997 documentary of the same name, this 2012 Broadway musical focuses on an annual Texas endurance competition in which contestants vie for a pickup truck by touching it. Whoever keeps a hand on longest wins. Meaning you end up with a musical where all the major characters spend most of the show standing around within arm's length of a pickup truck.

But in contemporary American musical theater, even doing nothing presents fine excuses for uplifting lessons in constancy and devotion. "If you want something, keep your hands on it," the weary contestants sing—somehow straight-faced—in the necessarily rousing finale. And of course the way there is paved with calculatedly darkish confessional numbers, de rigueur gospel digressions, and Ballads of Big Dreams (she wants to be a world traveler, he a Hollywood stuntman . . .). In lieu of a plot, co-creators Doug Wright, Amanda Green, and Trey Anastasio string together isolated character portraits, unsuccessfully filling the cracks with bits of inter-contestant intrigue.

It's all so transparent it's embarrassing, but director Christopher Pazdernik has assembled a cast for Refuge Theatre Project who sing the stuffing out of the cut-and-paste score. The five-piece band ain't bad either. At its most ambitious, the show attempts to lionize the working poor, albeit working poor stuck to a truck, but employing the sort of emotional shorthand that turns most everything to treacle, hokum, and bathos. After all, this is a world where all anyone needs to confess their darkest secrets is a stirring four-bar intro.   v

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