'Hands on a Hardbody,' a musical about endurance, opens at Eastlight

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dyDown in Texas, the word hardbody is as much a part of everyday vernacular as pickup truck is in these parts of the country. In fact, Texans know that hardbody means pickup truck.

Around here, though, hearing somebody refer to a hardbody often means a person tiptop shape. And hearing the title of a show called “Hands on a Hardbody” may conjur images of… well, of pornography.

That is the battle Chas Killen is facing at Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria. As director of the regional premier of the musical “Hands on a Hardbody” he wants the word to get out that it a musical about people trying to win a pickup truck at a Texas Nissan dealership by outlasting each other in a test of endurance.

The show itself, featuring some of central Illinois’ best voices singing new songs that have a southern feel, is anything but a test of endurance. It’s a fast-paced and fun script based on a real-life documentary about what people will do to win something for free.

“This has been an enjoyable experience with a great group of people. It’s a good, clean show and we need to let people know they will enjoy it because it is fun,” Killen said.

“Hands on a Hardbody” opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of East Peoria High School. Tickets are $19 and can be ordered online at www.tickets.eastlighttheatre.com.

Show times are 7:30 p.m. on April 22, 23, 27, 28, 29 and 30 and 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24.

Audiences will get the gist of the show immediately when they see the rather simple, yet quite believable set. It looks like an auto dealer’s parking lot with a cherry red Nissan pickup truck in the middle of the stage. The pickup, said Eastlight artistic director Steve Cordle, was the one used for rehearsals for the Broadway performances of “Hands on a Hardbody.”

They will meet the 10 hard-luck Texans who are chosen to participate in the contest to win the truck. The rules are simple: Each contestant must keep at least one hand on the truck at all times or they will be disqualified. The last person standing wins the truck.

The real-life contest on which the show is based last five days before it ended.

“Considering it took five days and this show tells the story in just two hours, the music is it is very important in conveying how it all happened. Each character has their own song so we get to know them,” Killen said.

He came up with the idea of using a strobe light and the sound effect of a ticking clock to covey the passage of one day to the next, a very effective way to do it without confusion. The stage lighting also is effective in showing how time passes during the hot Texas days and cooler nights.

The show starts with the character Benny Perkins, portrayed by local community theatre veteran Dave Montague, telling the story of how the contest started.

Other contestants are Connie Nabors as Janis, Courtney Swan as Heather, Vicky Snyder as Kelli, Wendi Fleming as Norma, Steve Hargis as Chris, Brandon Hartman as Greg, Nick Benson as Jesus, Brandon Chandler as Ronald and Kevin Paul Wickart as J.D.

Other performers are Matt Stubbs as the radio reporter Frank, Thom Parker as Janis’s husband, Cathy Sutliff as J.D.’s wife Virginia and Anne Snyder and Scott Moore as the contest representatives Cindy and Mike.

Music is provided by a five-piece band directed by Gary Nabors.

“Hands on a Hardbody” is not well known because it didn’t last long on Broadway even though it received several Tony Award nominations, so there won’t be recognizable songs. But Killen said several stand out, including “Stronger,” “Born in Laredo” and “Joy of the Lord.” The music and lyrics were written by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio and the book is by Doug Wright.

Killen said he hopes people learn that the show isn’t about anything dirty. “I’m afraid the title alone might turn some people off, which is too bad because they would be missing a great time,” he said.

Killen said the characters represent a microcosm of society and believes different audience members will find themselves rooting for different characters to win the truck. “I think people will see a little of people they know in life in these characters, perhaps even members of their own family. That just adds to the fun and appeal of the show,” he said.z

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).