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Richey Suncoast Theatre: ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ like going home again for Texas-born columnist

Barbara L. Fredricksen, Times Correspondent
By Barbara L. Fredricksen
Monday 10 September 2018 13.35

True confession: I walked into Richey Suncoast Theatre on opening night of the musical Hands on a Hardbody feeling something I fight like the dickens never to feel ó prejudice.

As in "an opinion or leaning formed without just ground or before sufficient knowledge," as Miriam-Webster would define it.

I make every effort to cleanse my mind of any opinion about a show before going in. But Iím human, and sometimes I canít help myself. Itís like when I expected to gag through The Addams Family musical last season and ended up delighting in every scene and character, both at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre and Richey Suncoast. Thatís the great thing about theater ó you rarely know what youíre going to like. But Hands on a Hardbody was something special to me, mainly because it is based on a true story set in Longview, Texas, the city of my birth.

Itís also the birthplace of the late labor union/nuclear activist Karen Silkwood, immortalized by Meryl Streep in the movie Silkwood. Maybe something in the Longview water makes for pushy women.

The play is about 10 Longview area people vying for a pickup truck by placing their hands on the truck itself. The last person with one hand firmly on the truck (no leaning or dozing allowed) wins it. They get 15-minute breaks every six hours, but must stay awake and upright during the whole contest.

The 2013 Tony and Drama Desk nominated show is new to this area, and the Richey Suncoast production is excellent. It features a great ensemble cast, Charles Gilmerís impressive four-piece orchestra, Jess Glassís super direction, all of it worth going to see whether youíre from Texas or not.

The plot has the contestants and the three sponsor/judges telling their personal stories and why they want to win, both in words and songs, as the 91-hour ordeal grinds on and on and on.

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For example, Jesus Pena (a splendid David Daly) has graduated from Texas A & M (Iím an Aggie Mom, class of 1988, so I have a special affinity for this character) and wants to go on to veterinarian school. Heís smart and has enough scholarships for tuition, but he needs money for room and board, so heíd sell the truck to get it. But contest hostess Cindy Barnes (Kaela Koch) warns him heíll have to show proof of citizenship if he wins, pointing up an undercurrent of racism that flows through the entire play. Dalyís Jesus responds with a powerful Born in Laredo to American citizens, exploding the myth that an Hispanic name and fluent Spanish mean youíre an undocumented immigrant.

There are light moments, too, as when the contestants reminisce about the old drive-in movie thatís long gone, replaced by big box stores in every town and city ó Walmart, Walgreenís, Best Buy, Mickey Dís and the like. And throw in some good, old East Texas, hand-clapping gospel (Joy of the Lord) to inspire contestants to hang in there.

Donít get the idea that "hands-on" contests are some kind of relic. On Saturday, I talked with my friend Shirley in Lufkin, just down the road from Longview, who told me that such a contest is the local Junior Leagueís biggest annual fundraiser. And theyíre still a big deal in England, of all places, which calls them "Touch the Truck" contests.

Hardbody plays 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday; tickets are $18, reserved seating. Call (727) 842-6777.

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A month or so ago, I helped a friend move a HUGE sofa and twisted my back, which immediately began sending lightning bolts down my left leg, a pretty common thing around here, Iím told. Since then, itís been difficult to sit for very long, but I forgot all about my aching back and leg when I went to the Show Palace to see Steve Solomonís one-man show, My Motherís Italian, My Fatherís Jewish & Iím in Therapy!

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Solomon writes all his own material, and he owns it. He says heís just telling stories about his family, but he makes them so outrageously funny and lovable and familiar that you just canít get enough.

Some of his jokes are hokey, but this former high school physics teacher and assistant-school-superintendent-turned-comedian makes them fresh and new.

Apparently hundreds, yea thousands, of other area residents think the same thing, as the place was packed with longtime and new fans on opening night for his two-hour, laugh-filled show.

Itís likely the Show Palace will bring Solomon back to do one of the other shows heís written. If they do, get your tickets early if you want to see him. I know Iíll be there.

Call (727) 863-7949 for information.

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Iíve been hoping to get a close look at the Live Oak Theatre Companyís new home at 21030 Cortez Blvd. in Brooksville. I and the public will get a chance at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21 and 2:30 p.m. Sept. 23, when the group holds a preview of its 2018-19 season, with scenes from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Itís a Wonderful Life and Godspell and other previous productions. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for children, which includes a dessert and beverage. Call (352) 593-0027 or online at www.LiveOakTheatre.org.

Live Oak has been performing in school and church facilities, but thanks to generous donations of $200,000 by Carol and Frank Morsani and another $100,000 raised in the community, it has its own building.

Yes, thatís the same Carol Morsani as Morsani Hall at Tampaís Straz Center. The Morsanis live in Brooksville and are performing arts enthusiasts of the first degree. The Live Oak board of directors voted to name the new facility the Carol & Frank Morsani Center for the Arts/Home of Live Oak Theatre.

The center is not only doing shows, itís offering classes in tap, jazz and ballet for adults and music and arts appreciation class for young children, with more to come.


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