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Theater & Dance
What you need to know for 01/21/2017

Playhouse cast fantastic; the show, not so much

Playhouse cast fantastic; the show, not so much

Production: A; Material: C; That’s my quick response to my visit to Park Playhouse’s mounting of the

Production: A

Material: C

That’s my quick response to my visit to Park Playhouse’s mounting of the 2013 country musical “Hands on a Hardbody,” which is, by the way, a Northeast Region premiere.

You’ll be impressed by the talents of both local and visiting actors (really, a dream ensemble), under Michael LoPorto’s direction; the unseen upstage band, led by Brian Axford; Geoffrey Doig-Marx’s choreography; and the solid contributions of the tech artists.

But the show itself — with music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Ms. Green, and, particularly, book by Doug Wright — wears you out before the night is over. And the last 15 minutes creep to a close.

The piece is based on a documentary about a group of ordinary Texans who, for one reason or another, vie for a Nissan truck by keeping at least one hand on it, night and day (with a 15-minute break every six hours), until there’s only one person of the original 10 left standing.

’Hands on a Hardbody’

WHERE: Park Playhouse, Washington Park, Albany

WHEN: Tuesday-Sunday at 8 p.m. through July 26

HOW MUCH: Free (bleachers); $22-$16, seats

MORE INFO: 434-0776, parkplayhouse.com

Of course, those reasons vary, and it’s here that the musical’s creators have decided there’s drama to be explored and emotions to be evoked in the telling of their stories. In his playwright’s note, Doug Wright says, “The truck offers plenty of metaphors; for one contestant it’s a new lease on life; another, manhood; a third, religious faith. It’s our portrait of America.”

Fair enough. Think “Ship of Fools,” “A Chorus Line” and even “Canterbury Tales,” works of art that bring together disparate characters, usually each with a single trait, whose interactions reveal much about the constructs of society in particular and the human condition in general.

The danger, however, is that there’s not a lot of emotional involvement with anyone because there are so many characters and social issues to be explored. Act 1 is straightforward exposition, as one participant after another steps up with a song that reveals personal struggles and/or dreams. The dialogue between, some involving the personnel of the car dealership sponsoring the contest, is only occasionally amusing or dramatic.

In short, the structure of the piece becomes tiresome, and ultimately you’d like the last few contestants to take their hands off the damned truck and go home.

The music fares better than the book, but, ironically, because each song — whether, say, rockabilly, gospel or Latin — is its own effective mini-drama, the forward thrust of the whole show is slowed: There’s a lot of emotional starting and stopping.

But on to this production, which is first-rate. The show has been brilliantly cast, with each performer having a look and the pipes to go with the character. Don Meehan’s Benny Perkins is a cocky dude, but Meehan’s raw delivery of “God Answered My Prayers” peels away the bravado. With youthful optimism Steve Raymond and Victoria Meade climb up onto the truck to look toward the future in “I’m Gone” — dynamite.

Jonathan Bethea does impressive vocals on “My Problem Right There” and provides some dramatic sparks in Act 2. Dashira Cortes is Albany’s own: praise be, because we’ll get to see her again and again. Finally, when John Ford-Dunker’s emotionally wounded soldier, Chris, opens up in “Stronger,” you get a highlight of the score and yet another example of these actors' joy in performing.

Next up for Park Playhouse, now in its 26th season, is “Oliver!”

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