Perrysburg Musical Theatre hits high gear with ‘Hands on a Hard Body’


BG Independent News

The Perrysburg Musical Theatre is taking a detour with this summer’s musical.

In previous summers, the troupe has presented big shows, often classics, musicals that employ large casts, including contingents of kids.

D. Ward Ensign as Benny

This year, though, the troupe, moves to a different venue, the Owens Performing Arts Center instead of the Perrysburg High School auditorium, and a smaller, lesser known, but not lesser, show, “Hands on a Hard Body.”

The musical runs Friday, May 18, and Saturday, May 19, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Based on a documentary film of the same name, the musical, with book by Doug Wright and lyrics by Amanda Green who collaborated on the music with Trey Anastasio, of Phish fame, tells of 10 everyday Texans competing in a car dealership contest to win a car.

The one who can keep a hand on red hard body of a Nissan truck the longest will win it. That truck becomes an embodiment of their aspirations.

Ronald (Brian D. Jones) wants to win it so he can start his own landscaping business. He imagines it emblazoned with the name McCowan and Son.

“First I get the truck, then I’ll work on the son,” he says. And as it becomes evident later in the show, there’s a few females vying for the role of mother.

Michael Searle as J.D. Drew

Greg (Jackson Howard) wants the truck so he can head off to California and become a Hollywood stuntman, and in fellow contestant Kelli (Eryn Brook), he thinks he’s found a traveling partner.

Jesus (C. Jordan Benavente) wants it so he can get the money to complete veterinary school. A Texan of Mexican heritage, he faces the casual bigotry of many of the others. Cindy (Cynthia Blubaugh), the office manager of the dealership, informs him in broken Spanish that she’ll need to see a green card if he wins.

He’s already made it clear, he speaks English perfectly well, and having been born in Laredo, the title of his big number, he is as much a Texan as the rest of them.

This is not the only social issue the musical confronts. Brendan Coulter as Chris, an Iraq War veteran, gives a powerful performance as a young man adrift.

This is a group portrait a hard scrabble community in the midst of a downturn that’s as much social and psychological as well as financial, the musical is true to its documentary roots. In that way it evokes “Working,” or even “A Chorus Line.”

Chuck Kiskaddon as Don and Chelsie Cree as Janis

As in that latter classic, the characters get to tell their life stories in a song. The lyrics are straightforward and blunt and lifted by melodies and rhythms that blend country and western and Broadway balladry. The score also includes powerful ensemble harmony that reverberates deep inside the listener, evoking a sense of community. The choreography by Clark Ausloos keeps the cast moving despite the inherently static nature of the action.

The Perrysburg cast, directed by Ausloos and Michael Kadin Craig, is up to the task. They bring these characters to life.

Central to the action is Benny (D. Ward Ensign). He won two years ago, and now he’s back because he is intent of being a winner. He’s aggressively competitive, even a bully, picking at other contestants’ weak spots. He’s intent on winning the truck, maybe because his wife drove off with the other one, packed with her Mary Kay inventory.

Oddly he takes on J.D. Drew (Michael Searle), the oldest contestant, under his wing to mentor, probably for diversion and because he doesn’t seem him as real competition.

Searle, who has long and extensive area musical theater credentials, has a rich bass voice that he uses to plumb the depths of his character. Drew’s wife (Jess Mullins) is on hand to watch over him. He’s recovering from a serious accident on an oil rig. She thinks he’s crazy, and believes he wants the truck so he has another way to get away from her. Their duet “Alone with Me” dissects a marriage born in the passion of young love that’s strained almost to breaking by the vagaries of life.

In contrast, contestant Janis (Chelsie Cree) and her cheerleader husband Don (Chuck Kiskaddon) revel in their marriage even after raising six kids. They live on the margins though they have a huge air conditioner, which he salvaged from a big box store going out of business. They make just enough money not to qualify for Food Stamps.

Amanda Reisner as Joy, right, praises the Lord as, from left, Kelli Eryn Book) and Janis Chelsie Cree) look on

Norma (Amanda Reisner) is another married woman with a husband and kids, though they remain off-stage. She’s a church lady, who brags that she has a prayer circle of 800 people asking the Lord to help her win.

Her joy infects most of the other contestants on the rousing “Joy of the Lord,” which is reprised late in the show helping to propel the plot  to its emotional climax.

They are putting their faith for prosperity into this contest run by Mike (Christopher Stack), an inept business proprietor and sleaze ball. He’s counting on the competition to keep the dealership afloat so he can pay for the Tuscan marble floor his wife wants.

Part of his plan is to have Heather (Kristin Kukic) a fetching college girl win. She’s young, good-looking and white. He can just imagine her propped up on the hood of the truck, and in more private places. She’s a somewhat reluctant participant in this scheme, and the two have a humorously steamy duet, “Burn That Bridge.”

Stack channels Mike’s inner rocker throughout, giving him a goofy energy. That comes out in the innuendo-laden title song performed with Frank (Dennis Kale), the local radio host who mostly shows up to usher each loser off with a quip and the dealership’s jingle which ends with “pick up and go.”

C. Jordan Benavente as Jesus sings about being born in Laredo.

Making a brief appearance is Gary Miller as Dr. Stokes who is interviewed by Frank about the dangers of sleep deprivation.

The script interweaves all these story lines into an emotional arc. Each character’s departure is tied to their story. The script does not telegraph who will be the last one standing. But that person lasts over 91 hours.

“Hands on a Hard Body” only had 56 performances, including previews, on Broadway. So figuring a two hour playing time, it was on stage just a few hours more than the contest it depicts lasted.

That’s not a fair judgment.

This is a strong show given the powerful performance it deserves. “Hands on a Hard Bbody” is worth going out of your way to see.