PIT & BALCONY Pushing the Boundaries of the Modern American Musical with the Inaugural Theatrical Performance of \'Hands on a Hardbody\'

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 797   By: Robert E Martin

25th September, 2014     0

Taking their cue from the phenomenal response received from the cutting edge contemporary theatrical productions brought to their stage last season, Pit & Balcony theatre has developed an impressive line-up of productions to mark their 83rd Season, beginning with the first-ever community theatrical presentation of Hands on a Hardbody, which will run from October 3-5 & 10-12th with performances at 8 PM except for Sunday matinees at 3 PM.

Written by Doug Wright with lyrics by Amanda Green and music by none other than Trey Anastasio (guitarist & vocalist for the progressive rock-jam-band Phish) this dramatic musical comedy was nominated for 3 Tony awards and was inspired by true events surrounding a hard-fought contest where only one winner can truly drive away with the American Dream.

Directed by SVSU theatre instructor Tommy Wedge, who made his P&B directorial debut with the much acclaimed Spring Awakening last May; and featuring the talents of musical director Loren Kranz and cast members Michael Curtis, Greg Allison and Ann Russell-Lutenske in the core roles of this ensemble cast production, the innate potential offered through this debut production sets a fresh landmark stepping-stone for P&B to expand its artistic impact upon the community.

“This is a very new musical and only opened on Broadway a little over a year ago in March, 2013 and then 2 months later moved off-Broadway for a year-and-a-half,” relates director Tommy Wedge.  “We are definitely breaking new ground here, as Pit & Balcony is the first amateur theatrical company to perform this play. It’s really a contemporary work and based upon a 1997 documentary of the same name that follows a Nissan dealership in 1995 when they stage a contest with straightforward rules that is somewhat like a spelling bee – each contestant must keep their hand placed on the truck and can’t lean, squat, kneel, swear, or ingest any drugs. They get a 15 minute break every six hours and the last person standing is the winner of the vehicle.”

According to Wedge, in the original documentary there were 23 contestants, which the musical pares down to ten. “The documentary is fascinating,” reflects Wedge, “because it shows the monotony involved with a contest of this nature and how contestants deal with it as the time runs down. The musical edits this 94-hour stretch of time into a 2-hour time span and is written to make the audience want to see how the contestants deal with the challenge.”

“Because all of the action centers around the truck, which is the central prop involved with the play – we felt it important to find an actual truck to place on the stage,” continues Tommy, “ and we actually managed to obtain a Nissan hardbody truck that we have miraculously managed to place upon the stage.”

“Obviously, this limits the amount of scene changes and staging, but we’ve managed to rig things so the truck will spin 360 degrees in any direction and change the audience perspective on it,” he states.  “Plus the choreography is a fun challenge, because everybody in the cast needs to dance while keeping one hand on the truck. Although, in a few instances, there are songs where delirium or passion rises enough within the characters so they can step away from the truck and you can enter their fantasy – but for the most part, they are connected to that truck by hand.”

Indeed, the Tale of the Truck is a story in itself. According to P&B President Martha Humphreys, “We started out searching early for an actual truck that we could put onstage and Dick Garber was so nice that he offered us a brand new Nissan. But then we had the stage assessed by a structural engineer and were advised there was no way that could happen, as we would be placing too much weight upon the stage.  So then we looked for a vintage hardbody, but they are collector’s items and hard to find.”

“I phoned Bill Georges and also sent Sheriff Bill Federspiel a message asking if he had anything in his confiscation lot,” smiles Martha, “and to my amazement the Sheriff called back and said he found us a truck through Georges. So we took everything out, removed the gas lines, stripped the weight out, painted it, cleaned it up, replaced the lights, got a new bumper and door and actually made the acquisition of this pivotal prop happen!  In fact, The Samuel French Company, who we licensed the play from, told us not to get rid of the truck because somebody else may wish to buy or rent it from us in the future, seeing as we are the first non-professional theatrical company performing this work.”

Insofar as Trey Anastasio is known for writing elaborate jam-band musical constructions with his band Phish, how does his theatrical music work with this production? “The setting takes place in Texas,” explains Tommy, “so it’s fundamentally filled with Americana music with more of a folk and country influence; but many of the songs are very melodic and succinct.  There is a number that is almost 6-minutes long and the play features a total of 22 songs, but the interplay works really well between the music, script and cast.  It’s kind of like Spring Awakening in that it’s billed as a rock musical, but has several melodic ballads and pop going on.”

And given that this is the first production of Hands on a Hardbody performed by an amateur or community theatre troupe, the prospect must be exciting for Wedge and ripe for artistic interpretation.  How is he approaching and preparing for this landmark debut?

“It is an exciting opportunity,” he readily admits. “On the one hand is that pull to be true to the script and what the audience might expect, but you also want to forge your own creative voice and take what’s in the script and make it your own.  I do have a little leeway because this is the first time production of this work, which makes it both exciting and liberating.  As an example, Act 1 features this song called ‘Burn that Bridge’ that features one character spinning around in a chair, so I thought it would be fun to have them do a little tango with the chair, instead of simply spinning it.  So there are opportunities to try something different and fun with this work that makes it very engaging.”

Award winning musician Loren Kranz is musical director for the production, with Tommy also handling the choreography & directing. “Auditions went good,” he states, “and we had just the right number of people to place in the right roles for this production.”

“The biggest challenge in many ways was getting the truck on-stage,” laughs Tommy. “It was kind of an unknown factor and we never knew how it would work. Plus, given the layered and intricate nature of the music, the songs are quite challenging. Even with seasoned and solid actors, the music can take you by surprise and push some people.  But all the actors are rising to the challenge and the audience will be taken by surprise, which will be good.”

“Actually, the actors were all surprised at how good this play is,” he continues. “It’s listed as a comedic drama from Samuel French, but I think it’s more of a comedy than a drama. Its much like contemporary television shows that mix comedy fluidly with drama, so you have moments where you laugh out loud, but also moments where you see the poignancy of one character coming back from Iraq and struggling; or another character weighted down by poverty.”

“There is definitely a voyeuristic element to this musical, as there is with Reality TV shows, where the audience is watching people suffering and witnessing their tribulations as a form of entertainment – which in Hands on a Hardbody – is a selling tool for this Nissan dealership. So there are a lot of undertones to the American Dream in this play, which will make it a fascinating ride for the audience.”

“This play had a limited run on Broadway so one of the challenges is that it is new and hard to market, but I also think it’s the best of what contemporary musical theater is starting to do in terms of mixing genres and showcasing character driven music that supports the characters.”

Concludes Wedge: “One of my favorite musicals is A Chorus Line because you care about the music and the characters.  Here we have three people who last the longest and are in the contest for the long-haul – some of the earlier characters fall away a lot sooner, so one of the strengths is that it builds off the tradition this theatre is working towards in terms of fostering ensemble musical productions.”

“With Spring Awakening we brought in new talent to the stage and this musical has also allowed us to harness fresh talent and bring new vitality into the P&B fold. It will appeal to a broad spectrum of audience and features a multi-racial cast, which to my mind also reflects a good cross section of the community in this play.”

In anticipation of opening night, the cast will also do various promotional and outreach events throughout the community, slated to appear at Barnes & Noble to sing songs from the production and also pull off a flash-mob appearance or two.

According to Humphreys, “We also were able to secure five autographed copies of the script from the original cast, so will raffle one of them off at each night of our performances.”

Tickets for ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ can be purchased by going to pitandbalconytheatre.com or by calling the box office at 989-754-6587.


New Pit & Balcony Season Focuses on Contemporary Musicals & Modern Theatre

In comparing her second year at the helm as President of the Board at Pit & Balcony, Martha Humphreys is decidedly pleased with the direction the theatre is charting.  “We achieved many of the goals set for last year and made a lot of progress, but we still have further to go,” she confesses.

“I wish that I had some of my naiveté back from when I started,” admits Humphreys, “because this is a hugely demanding and time-consuming job, but I absolutely love it – this is a labor of love for me and a learning curve as I go along – much like being back in school.  We have a lot of new faces and energy involved and I thank God that we have Gary Reid as our Operations Manager, because he is a wizard and my hero!”

For their 2014-15 season Pit & Balcony will be doing three musical productions instead of their usual two. Opening the season with the first ever non-professional theatrical debut of Hands on a Hardbodyand closing with another contemporary musical and winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Next To Normal; Pit & Balcony will also be performing the hilarious musical Spamalot for their Christmas production.

In addition to Spamalot on Dec. 5-14th Pit & Balcony will perform the Pulitzer Prize winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, which explores race relations and gentrification in the changing face of a Chicago neighborhood. “Last season Raisin in the Sun was an absolutely smash for us, broadening our base and bringing new people into the theatre,” notes Martha, “so this year we are doing Clybourne Park, which is pretty much a sequel to Raisin.”

Indeed, the only non-contemporary production on the bill for their 83rd Season is the March production of Blithe Spirit.  This classic by Noel Coward will be directed by Mike Wisniewski and chronicles the attempt by an aristocrat named Charles who engages a medium to conduct a séance in his home. By accident she summons the spirit of his first wife and cannot make the disruptive spirit go away.

As noted earlier, Next to Normal will close out the season in May. This contemporary musical and winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama tells the tale of a suburban household that copes with the crisis and unpredictability of a mother’s worsening bipolar disorder.

Humphreys is also pleased at the support & commitment P&B has been able to secure through community sponsorships for this new season. “We obtained sponsorships from Garber Automotive & Mike’s Wrecker for Hands on a Hardbody and offer different degrees and levels of sponsorship, as each production can cost up to $12,000 to stage. Fortunately we have all the levels filled for next year and only need to fill levels for Blithe Spirit this year.  Healthsource Saginaw hopped on for next season, as did The Saginaw Community Health Association.”

When asked to summarize her thoughts about the tenor of this upcoming season, Martha points to the up-beat nature of contemporary musicals being offered. “The thing with theatre is that you might not walk out of here dancing or skipping on a cloud, but you may walk out thinking something new or starting a dialogue with somebody about a serious topic that might have been raised. I sense that partly because of the economy, people want to be lifted away and I think this is a good season for people who are feeling that need to be removed or transported to a place where they are humming a song and feeling better about life.”

“I’m excited that we have an active hands-on Board of Directors and have hit so many of our goals,” concludes Martha. “Our Youth Program was a huge success this past Spring and we want to expand that program, now that the schools don’t offer any arts programs anymore, so this is an important arena where we can make a difference.”

“Plus we’re offering lots of fun and unusual activities and events. On November 1st we will be bringing zombies to the Pit with a showing of the film Zombieland for a one-night only screening of this blockbuster hit. We’ll have a costume contest and offer the winning costume a $100 prize and of course will be offering Twinkies to the audience!”  This will start at 8 PM and only cost $10.00 at the door.

“Finally, on December 20th, we have a special musical performance scheduled. Fred Reif and Mike Brush are putting together the recreation of a concert that was performed here at the Pit in 1955.  It’s being billed as the “Legacy of Saginaw Songwriters – 1920s-1950s’.  They’ve lined a stellar list of musicians to the line-up, including Sharrie Williams, and tickets will only cost $15.00 for this incredible and memorable night.”


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