Benny Perkins, Norma Valverde, Virginia and J.D. Drew, Ronald McCowan, Cindy Barnes and Kelli Mangrum Mestas had only to mosey across the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre — in their lazy-legged, down-home, East Texas sorta way — March 21 to bring a seasoned Broadway crowd to their collective feet, cheering and tearing.
The reason for this massive heart-swelling? The audience had just witnessed a moment in their lives, captured on film 15 years ago by the documentary cameras of S.R. Bindler and now translated into a musical by Doug Wright, Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio. The movie and the musical are both called Hands on a Hardbody.
The hardbody in question belongs to a $22,000 Nissan pickup truck, fresh off the assembly line and up for grabs — well, maybe not for grabs but certainly for some serious, long-term (!) stroking. All the people in paragraph one (save for sensible Cindy and Virginia) participated — along with five other determined worthies — in a public give-away sponsored annually by a Longview, TX, auto dealership. You have to be present to win (though not necessarily mentally, given the accumulating ravages of sleep deprivation), with one hand at all times touching the truck of your dreams.
The survivors of this grueling ritual were escorted across the Atkinson stage by the performers playing them in the show — Perkins, a previous winner with a been-there-done-that swagger, by Hunter Foster; Valverde, a stout faith-filled believer strengthened by 3,000 people praying "give Norma that truck," by Keala Settle; The Drews, the senior-citizen entry, by Mary Gordon Murray and Keith Carradine; McCowan, a big-talking African-American "candied out" of the race by Snickers bars, by Jacob Ming-Trent; Barnes, a by-the-book car-dealership judge, by Connie Ray; and Mangrum, a UPS worker dreaming of upgrading her life, by Allison Case.
Wright of Dallas, Anastasio of Fort Worth and Green of Central Park West have concocted a real-people's musical that speaks to these hard times when life and economics have become so contorted and distorted that, as one character in the show ruefully observes in passing, the American dream is a Japanese car.
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