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"Hands On Hardbody" (Review)

Short Description of "Hands On Hardbody" (Review)

ALBANY – It isn’t often that the adjective ‘bucolic’ is used to describe a theater experience, but how can one not employ some flowery lingo when describing the Park Playhouse. Set at the bottom of a sloping hill and overlooking the serene Washington Park Lake, the mere act of drinking in the scenery on a florid summer evening is satisfying. And then there are the Broadway-caliber productions the playhouse has become famous for over the years.
It would be incorrect to construe it as community theater (not that there’s anything wrong with that), though many of the cast members hail from the Capital District. An equal number, however, are often New York City-based performers off-Broadway, in feature films, and on the small screen.
Witness Tuesday’s performance of “Hands On A Hardbody,” the two-act musical that’s based on a real-life event: 10 Texans who compete for a shot of winning a new pick-up truck.  The catch?  The contest is deceptively grueling. It proves taxing enough to test the moral fiber, physical stamina, and emotional resilience of each contestant by way of the simple-sounding premise: simply keep one hand affixed to the coveted vehicle, outlast your opponents, and the truck is yours!
Each contestant’s motive for wanting the win is told in song, a melodic intervweaving of hardscrabble circumstances. There are a pair of winsome 20-somethings who fervently dream of busting out of their economically depressed small town and making a new life in L.A.; the waitress whose car was repossessed, an ambitious would-be veterinarian who’ll sell the truck to finance his education, a scripture-quoting wife and mother wanting desperately to provide for her family, a bitter divorcee who just plain wants to win, and a limping, laid-off factory worker who knows this is his only viable shot at owning something shiny and new.
Through the stories, the play addresses larger issues, some taboo, including poverty, greed, racism, competition, faith, and integrity. But even when subject matter veers into the uncomfortable zone, the message manages to go down easy, thanks to spectacular songs, performed with joyful exuberance by the cast. Dashira Cortes, Molly Rose McGrath, and John Ford-Dunker display astonishing powerhouse vocals in their solo numbers. Veteran television actor Steve Fletcher brings a weary sweetness to his role as the down but not out 60-something struggling to imbue his life with something other than the duel pain of an on-the-job injury coupled with barely making ends meet. News Channel 13 anchor Benita Zahn as his wife deftly displays concern and exasperation for her increasingly distant husband. The score and songs, by Amanda Green and Phish front man Trey Anastasio blend rock, country, gospel and blues. Some, such as “I’m Gone,” “The Joy of the
 Lord,” and “Stronger,” are downright unforgettable. As is the entire cast. The husband and wife duo of Victoria Grazioli and Joe Phillips as Janice and Don Curtis are both hilarious and an endearing study in long-term loyalty. The villainous central character, Benny Perkins, is played with sly sarcasm by veteran actor Don Meehan. And Jonathan Rion Bethea’s Ronald McCowan brings an unexpected jolt of moral insight to light near the play’s end.
Helping push the stellar cast to great heights are director Michael LoPorto,  musical director and pianist Brian Axford (who leads the fabulous 8-piece band), and choreographer Geoffrey Doig-Marx. It all adds up to an a stage performance that’ll leave anyone with a heart humming as they file out of Washington Park under a summer canopy of starry skies.

Park Playhouse is located in Washington Square Park off of Madison Avenue in Albany. “Hands On A Hardbody” is playing at 8 p.m. through July 26. “Oliver!” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2-26. Call(518) 434-0776 or visit www.parkplayhouse.com for more information.

Stacey Morris is a freelance writer from Lake George. Her website is www.staceymorris.com .

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Address: Washington Square Park, Albany, NY

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