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THEATER REVIEW Hands on a Hardbody
by Lauren Emily Whalen

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Playwright: Doug Wright ( book ),

Amanda Green ( lyrics ), Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green ( music ). At: Refuge Theatre Project at the Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence Ave. Tickets: $30; . Runs through: April 27

Midway through Hands on a Hardbody's first act, a woman starts singing along with her headphones. Her nine companions—all competing against one another to win a pickup truck in a small Texas town—join in one by one.

The gospel tune picks up pace with clapping and moving in a circle around the truck, each person keeping one hand on the vehicle in keeping with the contest rules. For about four minutes, 10 people temporarily form a tight, joyful bond.

If only the rest of the show were that powerful. Hardbody boasts composer Trey Anastasio, part of the legendary jam band Phish, and an intriguing true story inspired by a 1997 documentary film. Sadly, Refuge Theatre Project's Chicago premiere doesn't live up to the hype, thanks to a boring book, bloated runtime and score that is more cliché than original.

Times are tough in Longview, Texas, but everyone rallies for the annual Hands on a Hardbody event, in which ten people chosen at random compete to see who can, well, touch a Nissan pickup the longest. There are 15-minute breaks every six hours, but other than that, one hand ( protected by cotton gardening gloves ) must be on the vehicle at all times. From a stoic Marine ( Max Cervantes ) to an outspoken mother of six ( Katherine Condit ), everyone's in it to win it, but that's before oppressive heat, shady politics and family secrets come into play.

Certainly, musicals have been based on stranger topics: Teeth, based on a movie about a teenage girl with vagina dentata, workshopped on the East Coast last summer. The problem with Hardbody is its lack of specifics. Each character has a thoroughly predictable conflict, from the sleazy dealership manager ( Dan Gold ) trying to keep his business afloat to the wide-eyed UPS worker ( Alli Atkenson ) who just wants to travel. Characters of color either make cameo appearances, such as Jared David Michael Grant's boisterous smooth talker, or exist solely to teach others about prejudice, as is the case with Sebastian Summers' ambitious veterinary student. And when past winner Benny Perkins ( Derek Fawcett, channeling his best Matthew McConaughey ) reveals his inner tragedies in the 11 o'clock number, the audience is expected to forgive two-plus hours of the character's casual racism, not to mention gaslighting and outright bullying.

Apart from the aforementioned gospel songs, Anastasio and Green's soundtrack is largely forgettable, and Doug Wright's dialogue sounds straight out of a sitcom about Southerners written in Los Angeles. Though Hands mostly falters due to its writing, Ariel Triunfo's choreography—unoriginal even in its somewhat limited capacity—doesn't help matters. Nor do the productions' copious microphone and acoustic issues, only a few of which could be attributed to opening-night roughness as opposed to, perhaps, an insufficient tech. Even standout performances, like Molly Kral's sweet and stalwart woman of faith and Roy Samra's wistful love interest, can't save Hardbody from itself.

Refuge Theatre Project has found a niche by presenting underproduced musicals with top-notch performers. Despite the latter, the results are often hit or miss: Some shows aren't produced much, for a reason. For every High Fidelity, Refuge's Jeff Award-winning runaway hit, there's a Lysistrata Jones, a clunky Greek myth-turned-pop musical that the company unwisely staged in an actual gym. Since early 2016, Refuge has chased another High Fidelity; however, because of major flaws, Hardbody is nowhere close to being a worthy successor.

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