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Theater review: 'Hands on a Hardbody' at Blackfriars 

The penultimate production of Blackfriars Theatre's 2016-17 season is an interesting one. "Hands on a Hardbody" is a 2012 musical co-written by Trey Anastasio of Phish and Amanda Green. Any traces of Anastasio's killer guitar chops and jam band intuition have vanished, and in their place is a collection of enjoyable but predominantly generic pop-rock songs with an impact that's decidedly fleeting.

Based on a 1997 documentary of the same name, "Hands on a Hardbody" -- suggestive title notwithstanding -- is about an endurance contest in which 10 hopeful entrants from Longview, Texas, compete to be the last person standing with their hand on the prize: a new pickup truck. It is both a metaphoric symbol and tangible evidence of the "American dream" realized.

Each person sets out with a compelling combination of gumption and desperation: the religiously devout Norma Valverde is trying to overcome poverty for the sake of her family; Jesus Peña wants to sell the truck to pay for veterinary school; the upbeat if overly talkative Ronald McCowan plans to kickstart what would eventually become a family business; Heather Stovall sees the truck as the ticket to her independence; and former Marine Chris Alvaro is initially silent about his reasons. The pursuit of the truck soon reveals the contestants' motivations and, in several cases, their restless frustrations, internal conflicts, and personal demons.

Co-directed by Mary Tiballi Hoffman and Blackfriars Artistic and Managing Director Danny Hoskins, the most impressive aspect of this production was the high energy and dramatic commitment of the ensemble cast. The authenticity of each character was unmatched by any recent theater event I've seen in Rochester. So it's no surprise that the most powerful moments in the show came during the ensemble numbers, when the actors joined forces to voice their collective desire for success, as in "If I Had This Truck," or when they spontaneously bonded during "Joy of the Lord."

There isn't a weak singer in the cast, although Yvana Melendez as Norma stole the show with a powerful, soulful instrument. Other highlights included the emotionally gripping "Stronger," sung by Colin Pazik as Chris, and "Born in Laredo," an impassioned look at Jesus's struggle for acceptance as a Hispanic American, delivered by Raul Torres.

"Hands on a Hardbody" is often a fun trip, but it also delivers serious messages on pertinent topics like war, immigration, public assistance, and corporate sprawl. These are all laudable themes, but as Act Two wore on, the tone grew increasingly preachy. Perhaps as a natural response, the acting became somewhat histrionic. A lighter touch that was less over-the-top would have made for a more poignant story.

And for all the intense build-up, Anastasio, Green, and playwright Doug Wright resolves the conflicts all too easily by the end, like a 30-minute sitcom might. Yet, clocking in at over two and a half hours, the show is long. Act One was wonderfully bittersweet and nuanced, while Act Two featured a sugar-coated ending that was inconsistent with the complexities of the characters and the obstacles they faced. Worst of all was the inartfully written closing number "Keep Your Hands on It," in which J.D. Drew (played by Ken Harrington) offensively compares his devoted wife to the truck. By the end, what might have been a different, more thoughtful kind of musical felt like a cheesy church drama.

Still, poor plot resolution and an unfortunate analogy notwithstanding, this production of "Hands on a Hardbody" is worth seeing for the strength of its excellent (if at times overzealous) cast.

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