For some time now, I had heard from various sources that Grand Rapids was an arts mecca. Situated on the Grand River, the second largest city in Michigan is located in West Central Michigan, just east of Lake Michigan. It is home to the 158-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids Art Museum, The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, a four-story Alexander Calder stabile that has become integral to the city’s brand, along with various other arts and cultural attractions.
Grand Rapids also has a vibrant theatre scene, which I recently sampled, along with the other attractions previously mentioned, when I finally paid a visit to the flourishing city over the weekend. I took in a musical, “Hands on a Hardbody,” at Circle Theatre, located at the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Aquinas College.
With a thrust stage surrounded by tiered seating on three sides, the Performing Arts Center auditorium has over 400 seats. Founded in 1952, Circle Theatre is a venerable professionally managed community summer theatre that serves over 30,000 patrons each year.
Doug Wright wrote the book for “Hands on a Hardbody.” Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green composed the music, with Green also writing the lyrics. The musical is based on a 1997 documentary of the same title by S.R. Bindler. The musical had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in 2012 and its New York opening in 2013. Though nominated for three Tony Awards, the show closed after only a few months.
The show’s plot is simple. Ten determined, diverse contestants, who are down on their luck, compete for a Nissan Hardboy pickup truck at a car dealership in Longview, Texas. Essentially a character study, the lives of each competitor, along with the car dealer and radio announcer, unfold throughout the show. Also a commentary on blue-collar concerns such as the economy, as well as the timely issues of racial prejudice, immigration, and the status of veterans. Ultimately, “Hardbody” is filled with often poignant stories told by the contestants via the show’s engaging rock score and soulful lyrics. A hilarious comedy, the musical has its share of pathos.
Coming from a blue-collar background, I found the story both timely and relevant. And since it is set in Texas (my family is from San Antonio), I found the characters and the actors, all of them “real people” types, highly convincing. These are salt of the earth people all trying to achieve the American Dream, and willing to undergo a grueling four-day endurance test to secure a piece of it, as symbolized by the Hardbody.
Speaking of the Hardbody, though I was familiar with the show’s plot prior to seeing it, I nevertheless did a double take when I saw the actual truck on stage upon taking my seat. It’s not the first time I have seen a vehicle on stage, but never have I seen one quite like this. Program notes indicated that its mechanical parts had been removed, as were all of its fluids, then the truck was split in half to be reassembled in the theatre. What intrigued me the most about the truck is that it was placed on multiple casters, so that it could easily be turned every which way by the characters holding onto it with white gloves, so as not to smudge its shiny red finish. In essence, the truck was not only a giant prop, it was also an extra character in the show.
Prior to seeing the show, a desk clerk at the downtown hotel where I stayed was introduced to me by another clerk as “The Theatre Kid.” He told me his name was Liam and when he discovered that I was seeing “Hardbody,” he told me he was an actor and had previously performed at Circle. He went on to tell me that I would be seeing some of the most talented actors in Grand Rapids and for a city its size, it had an substantial pool of gifted performers.
I am pleased to report that based on the performances of the “Hardbody” cast, “The Theatre Kid” knew what he was talking about. Reading credits in the program, I ascertained that most members of the cast had extensive credits, with many of them having appeared at Civic Theatre, and Actors’ Theatre, two other prominent stages in Grand Rapids. It appeared that most of the cast members were semi-professional and yet their performances were on an equal par with most Equity actors I’ve seen on any stage. It just so happened that I attended the closing-night performance, which meant the show I saw was as tight as it could possibly be and it showed.
There were so many stand-out performances, but the ones that really affected me the most for their vividness were that of Caitlin Crowley as outspoken Janis who strives for truth and integrity, Jess Luiz as faith-driven Norma, who stopped the show as she sang “Joy of the Lord,” Jake Herrera, as Jesus, a proud Mexican-American student who dreams of becoming a veterinarian and responds to a bigot in “Born In Laredo,” Matt Hartman, who played Chris, a stoic Marine veteran suffering from psychological wounds who expresses his pain in the song “Stronger,” and finally, Maddie Jones as Kelli and Lucas Story as Greg, a young couple who decide if either of them win,they will travel to L.A. together. Their romantic duet, “I’m Gone” in which they stand together, with arms extended, in the bed of the truck near the roof, a la “Titanic” was beguiling.
Most impressive of all, was the direction of Jolene Frankey, who was responsible for not only casting and guiding this remarkable ensemble of actors-singer-dancers, but also for her clever and thoroughly ingenious choreography, especially when it involved the truck being manipulated by the characters.
Interpreting Anastasio and Green’s appealing score was a seasoned six-piece band, led by music director Scott Patrick Bell on keyboards.
Also deserving of praise for the show’s stellar production elements were scenic designer Don Wilson, properties designer Elizabeth Merriman, costume, hair and makeup designer Bill Dunckel, lighting designer Catherine Marlett Dreher, and sound designer Kyle Aspinall.
At a time when the economic and social disparity between America’s working class and the top 1 percent is the largest it’s ever been, many of the play’s lessons regarding holding on to one’s dreams and not giving up resonate and inspire. As far as the production itself, I couldn’t have found a better representation of what Grand Rapids has to offer its theatre-goers than Circle Theatre, which is clearly a feather in its cap and one I hope to experience again soon.
For tickets and information about Circle Theatre 2019-2020 season, call its box office (616) 456-6656 or visit circletheatre.org