When speaking about Hands on a Hardbody, the musical that he will direct at the Flowertown Players this spring, Larry Spinner remarked on what he believed to be one of the show’s most important messages. “Sometimes all you can do is just keep moving forward, and never give up; just keep your hands on it.”
The same lesson – standing tall in the face of adversity, and never giving up – can be applied just as readily to the production itself.
Through a month of rehearsals, the cast and crew have run into no small amount of obstacles, both large and small. But, just like the characters they portray, they’ve come up fighting and ready for more. With the show’s May 24th opening night drawing closer and closer, Spinner, musical director David McLaughlin, and the 15 members of the show’s cast are making steady progress, every night getting a little bit closer to getting the production where it needs to be.
In other words, they’re keeping their hands on it.
Not unlike the collection of East Texans the show portrays, the production has dealt with hard luck from the beginning, starting at the cast. Two central roles – the wily, charismatic Benny Perkins and the troubled ex-Marine Chris Alvaro – were not filled after callbacks. Matthew Walker, a veteran of Flowertown’s productions, soon signed on to play Perkins, and was present at the read-through of the show. But an actor would not be found for the part of Alvaro until the second week of rehearsals. Coincidentally, it was the same man who donated the truck that the production uses, Jonathan Quarles, who would earn the role. In between, a third actor had to withdraw from the show. Cerissa Roberts, who was to play the PR director at the car dealership where the show takes place, was unable to get time off work for performances despite trying everything possible. However, a replacement, Charleston Southern University graduate Taryn Wetherington, was quickly found.
Since overcoming this major obstacle, the problems have been smaller, yes, but no less difficult. Just last week, a wave of illnesses throughout the cast hamstrung certain aspects of the rehearsal process, especially considering that choreography had begun in earnest. Attendance has also been sabotaged by other outside forces, ranging from work commitments to car trouble to Third Thursday wreaking havoc on parking and traffic. But the cast has gamely risen to the occasion, stepping in to read for those who aren’t there, and providing body doubles for absent co-stars when McLaughlin needs to map out spatial relationships for choreography. Any show is, by design, a team effort, but the men and women of Hands on a Hardbody are an ensemble in the truest sense of the word, which hasn’t come without work.
The first week of rehearsals was devoted to the scenes between the songs, as well as character work. As Spinner took special care to emphasize each night, portraying each character with integrity was of the utmost importance. The musical, adapted from the 1997 documentary of the same name, is based on actual events; the characters involved are all real people. Some may be amalgamations of several contestants profiled in the film – the character and story arc of Heather Stovall, for instance, is based on three different contestants – but they’re all based on people who had the same dream as everyone else: win the truck, change their life.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. These are, by definition, big characters. There wouldn’t be a documentary or a show based on it if they weren’t. But avoiding overacting is paramount. To play them as caricatures is to do both them and the show a major disservice. The key for the actor is finding the common ground with their character. For some, like Carlos Nieto and Jesús Peña, it’s a shared racial background and heritage; for others, like Quarles and Alvaro, it’s their military experience. Spinner articulated this most clearly when talking to Rusty Cooler, who plays the blustering owner of the dealership, Mike Ferris: “Some of Mike is in you, some of you is in Mike. That’s the way it’s gotta be.” He is constantly probing, asking what a character’s relationship with another is, checking to see what an actor’s intentions are, giving advice on line readings. Spinner has been working on producing this show for almost a year, and he knows the characters like the back of his hand; his goal is to make sure the actors do as well.
Spinner’s philosophy on this isn’t just to draw out more authentic, honest performances. It’s that the cast, when they perform the songs, aren’t just singing the song like a generic actor: he wants them to sing as if they were their character. Authenticity doesn’t stop at lines and monologues, and with a score as rich in music and text as this, believing in what you sing is critical to the show’s success.
If Spinner is the production’s composed, heady yin, musical director David McLaughlin is the animated yang. McLaughlin, who doubles as the show’s choreographer (“It’s hips and groin, that’s all there is to it,” he says about one song), has been a part of the fabric of Flowertown’s musicals for years, most recently portraying Dan Goodman in last summer’s production of Next to Normal. Energetic and quick-witted, McLaughlin said at the first music rehearsal that his job was to hammer in the minutiae, the ensemble parts, the harmonies, before zooming out and focusing on the solos and duets. He runs a tight ship, but he’s not above a wisecrack here and there when he can get away with it. Take, for example, this exchange between him and Quarles during a rehearsal:
“Jonathan, are you a baritone or a tenor?”
“I’m a baritone.”
“Well, you’re a tenor for this show.”
He then punctuated the statement with a downward glissando on his keyboard.
Beneath the surface gloss, however, McLaughlin is a serious, devoted teacher and director. He cares, deeply, about bringing out the best in each member of this cast, whether they’ve been doing shows for years, or if they’ve never had a vocal lesson in their life. His demeanor in a one-on-one rehearsal with company member Malcolm Powell demonstrates this.
Powell plays the boisterous womanizer Ronald McCowan, and his big solo “My Problem Right There” is a highlight of the first act. The issue is that the part is written slightly higher than Powell’s natural vocal range. So, during this session, McLaughlin concentrated on drawing out his falsetto, so he could reach some of the higher notes that the song demands. He was also careful to emphasize not only breath support and volume, but on building Powell’s confidence, and working these lessons in over the course of a few tries at the number, the song sounded much improved from when it was done with the whole group a few days prior. During a lull in the session, McLaughlin gave Powell some words of encouragement: “It’s my job to get you where you need to be. Just know that you’re no less talented than these other guys.”
Something else McLaughlin is determined to make clear is that the importance of the work put in, and the importance of the quality of the end product, is not lessened just because of the community theater setting. If anything, it’s more important. A smaller stage does not equal a smaller effort in his books, and that mindset is crucial to drawing out the best performances possible.
One of Spinner’s tweaks to the show is that there will be a cold open, of sorts, using a song that was cut from the Broadway production. This song, “The Tryers,” is a ballad for people like the ten men and women competing for the truck. The key lyric is, “We struggle so, and even though we falter and fall, most people never try at all.” It could double as a mission statement for this production: despite the difficulties and setbacks, the show is where it should be with just under a month to open.
It’s also something that jives nicely with something Spinner said at the very first official rehearsal back in late March. “It’s really hard. It takes genius to invent something,” Spinner said, “but once you get the spark in you, it can flourish.”