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Theatre Review: Ensemble's "Hands on a Hardbody"

At Ensemble Theatre, a dozen out-of-luck, small town Texans sing about their troubles and their dreams in musical Hands on a Hardbody.
 
That hardbody is what they’re dreaming about. Based on a documentary of the same name, the area premiere is about an annual endurance contest at a car dealership in Longview, Texas. Contestants put their white glove-encased hands on the shiny red pick-up at center stage and the last one standing will drive away in a prize they’re all convinced will change their lives. They’re standing in 100-plus temperatures for days.
 
There’s Norma Valverde (Sara Mackie) who relies on the Lord to help her get transportation to school for her six kids and to possible work for her job-hunting husband. Bright eyed Brooke Steele and good guy Michael Carr share a dream to get the heck out of this nowhere town and its box store landscape.
 
JD Drew (Phil Fiorini) was injured on the job and promptly fired. No unemployment, no health care and he and supportive wife Virginia (cheering him on from the sidelines) are losing their emotional bond to his depression. They do their job as emotional anchor to the show. Denise Devlin is Heather, and she’s funny as all get-out as the trashy and flirty college girl who looks like a fix.
 
If you’re a regular at Ensemble, you know most of these names as ETC regulars and some of the best local talent in Cincinnati and the cast of 15, even though a little uneven, pretty much saves a good-looking production of a middling show.
 
The score of country-western, rock, ballads, and gospel, all with a Texas twang, are pleasing but too often similar and as fine as music director Scot Woolley’s vocal direction is, finding the sound balance with the taped music may be part of opening night’s distracting sound problems.
 
First among equals is Charlie Clark, who’s terrific (as usual) as mean-spirited Benny Perkins. Perkins won the contest two years ago but has come back for another, since his wife took the blue one when she left him. And that’s not all that’s going on in his troubled head. Clark has the meatiest role and he knows exactly what to do with it.
 
Kudos go to Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Jim Hopkins, coming in as a last-minute (and I mean last-minute) replacement (still sneakily carrying a script and smooth as can be). He doesn’t miss a beat as hubbie to feisty Janis Curtis (Deb Girdler.)
 
Annie Fitzpatrick and Michael Shawn Starks are working at the dealership. She’s efficient, he’s sleazy, and he isn’t making sales quotas. Things are tough for everybody – except maybe Michael Bath as the guy with the microphone calling the action.
 
Costume designer Reba Senske puts the actors in character-defining outfits and Patti James does a nice job of choreographing a show in that’s all about keeping hands on a car.
 
Part of the problem with Hardbody is that everyone is fitted snugly into categories, even the handful based on real people featured in the documentary. Everyone does pretty much exactly what you expect. 
 
You’ll probably pick a favorite and root for them anyway. 
 
Director D. Lynn Meyers has a soft spot for the material – as ETC producing artistic director, and she usually puts a show about regular folks being roughed-up by life on the schedule every season. There’s no arguing that’s been a torn-from-the-headlines topic for going on a decade.
 
Hands on a Hardbody, through Sept. 21. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. 513-421-3555 and www.ensemblecincinnati.org.
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts Contributor
 
Photo provided