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Hands on a Hard Body - Wanneroo Repertory

Reviewed by Paul Treasure

 

Based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, Hands on a Hardbody is the story of a group of Texans in an endurance contest to try and win a brand-new pickup truck. This is Wanneroo Repertory’s second Australian Premiere musical in a row (after April’s Evil Dead – the Musical), a brave move for any Community Theatre, and one we hope has paid off for them.


The show is set in the forecourt of a car dealership in Longview, Texas. Set designer Mel Anderson has given us a very clear set, dominated by a working neon light sign adds a lot of mood and character to the setting, especially during the darker nighttime scenes. Dominating the set is the hardbody of the title, a Nissan Hardbody Pickup Truck, which has been constructed in such a way that the flat surfaces are usable and support weight, while the sides, rather than closed in, are a series of narrow vertical panels. On a practical level, this would greatly reduce the weight of the truck, but it also brings with it the benefit that we can clearly see the contestants on the upstage side of the truck through the truck. This is one of the most amazing set pieces I have seen in a community theatre production in quite some time.


The lighting design did well to enhance the mood of the piece, from the glaring daytime scenes to the dark, moody, and often introspective nighttime scenes. Colleen Johnson’s costuming was very period-appropriate and helped to establish the various different characters onstage, giving us very clear hints as to who each character was, and how we were supposed to react to them.


This show must be a nightmare for a choreographer. How to make a show visually interesting when half the cast has to keep one hand on a truck at all times? Jane Anderson has made a very valiant effort and come up with some clever and interesting solutions to the inherent problems of this show. Musical Director Shaun Davis has done a stunning job. His 9-piece band plays impeccably, and it was some time before I realised I was actually listening to a live band, and not a very professional backing track. The singing is good across the board, with some of the crispest harmony work I have heard from an ensemble for some time.


This particular production is dominated by a very powerful quartet of performers as the four female contestants. Lukas Perez is an absolute delight as Norma Valverde. They play the role with huge brushstrokes and total abandon. For anyone not familiar with the source material, it would be tempting to say that they are bordering on parody, but the real Norma herself was very much larger than life, and Lukas seems to fill themself with the same joy and conviction. Their gospel hymn “Joy of the Lord” is the absolute highlight of the show as Norma sings of her faith in God, and manages to drag most of the rest of the competitors along with her zeal and enthusiasm.


If Norma is filled with joy, then Helen Carey as Janis is filled with rage. In a show and a company full of beautiful singing, Helen has made the bold choice to forego beauty and embrace the full potential of her character, giving us a raw, raspy, and raucous rendition of this character. It is a gamble that not only wins but jackpots, especially in “It’s a Fix” where she rages against life’s inequities with a barely controlled ferocity that is both terrifying and thrilling to watch. In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of this show is just how much some of the performers have been willing to let their brakes off and push their characters as far as they are able to go.


In a year that seems to be filled with people returning to the stage after years away, one of the most welcome would have to be the return of Breeahn Carter. Previously renowned for her “ora” onstage, Breeahn does not disappoint as she draws the audience’s gaze from her very first entrance and holds it throughout the show. Her character, Heather, is one that needs to be switched on, in more ways than one, throughout her entire time onstage, and Breeahn manages to hold her on to her character and keep her energy high (in more ways than one) with finesse, and with what seems a laser-like focus on maintaining the physicality of her role at all times, even when the focus is far from her.  Her duet with Ben Mullings as the less-than-savoury car salesman Mike, “Burn That Bridge”, is possibly the comic highlight of the night. 


If the previously named performers stand out for how large their roles needed to be played, Brittany Isaia’s take on Kelli is the polar opposite. She plays the role with a quiet introspection and stillness that at times seems to magically stop the very air around them. More than ably assisted in most of her scenes by Joshua Hollander as Greg, their duet “I’m Gone” was the emotional high point for this reviewer. Brittany and Joshua have developed a chemistry between them that was so effective their characters were the two that this reviewer cared the most about, and the climax of their character arcs was the single part of the show that moved me the most.


Amongst the other characters, Gillian Binks was beautiful, as always, in the smaller role of Virginia, and Christian Dichiera impressed as Ronald, especially with his number “My Problem Right There”. Amber Wilson as Cindy and Rodrigo Goncalves de Azevedo as Jesus set the tone magnificently in their confrontation at the start of the second act. Some of the other performances were well-acted and beautifully sung, but seemed to play their characters way too safe and therefore lacked the emotional intensity and authenticity of their fellow performers, and what should have been gut-wrenching songs fell short of the mark.


Directors David Nelson and Jane Anderson have given us a wonderful treat with this premiere production. Well performed and well produced, and audiences should definitely make the effort to see something different and clever like Hands on a Hardbody. As a final note, it is worth paying attention to what appears to be the moral of the story. A moral that has been given to us not by the writers but by the real-life events this show is based on. Sometimes it is the smallest and purest of motivations that win out in the end.


The cast of Hands On A Hard Body. Image provided by the theatre company.

Reviewer Note: Tickets for this review were provided by the theatre company.

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