Hands on a Hardbody – Park Playhouse (Albany, NY), 7/24/14

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I can’t always predict what is going to spark my attention. Like most people, I have my particular triggers for what I am going to be interested in; you come to me with anything related to the NY Yankees, The Wire, Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Seinfeld (man or show), Jon Hamm, Dave Grohl, Jack White, Jimmy Fallon, Journey, or the Muppets and you are guaranteed to at least spark my interest. These are well established and my affinity for these people and things has been exploited on more than one occasion by someone trying to get themselves out of the doghouse. If Hamm and Fallon teamed up to do a baseball movie and the soundtrack was done by the Foo Fighters, I don’t think anyone would be surprised at my enthusiasm and obsession with that project (which, by the way, sounds AMAZING – someone start working on it).

Then there are other times when I’m not particularly sure why something has struck my fancy; absent any of my normal indicators, I still occasionally get very invested in projects that I wouldn’t necessarily predict. This is not to say that people don’t like things outside their normal interests – of course they do. Rather, it is the level of interest that is a surprise to me. Sometimes I just fixate on some unexpected things. The musical Hands on a Hardboy is one of those things.

When I first heard that they were developing a musical based on the cult documentary of the same name, there was no reason that should have captured my attention. While I really enjoy documentaries – especially about out of the ordinary things – I hadn’t seen Hands on a Hardbody. The film wasn’t easily available on DVD or streaming; in fact, the only reason I even knew of its existence was because it was occasionally referenced on Pop Candy, a blog that I used to religiously read (and that inspired me to start my own blog). So I didn’t have any deep affinity for the source material, though a documentary about a contest in Texas where the person who kept their hand on a truck the longest would win it sounded like something that I would be attracted to. The fact that Trey Anastasio, frontman for Phish, was collaborating on the score and songs certainly helped put the show on my radar, though while I enjoy Phish I certainly am a casual fan at best. I’ve seen them three times live, which in the Phish universe of fandom barely registers. Even my friends who are die-hard Phish fans don’t really recognize me as a fan, since they never invite me to go to shows with them. So on the surface, there is no clear explanation for why I would have taken more than a passing interest in this musical. It seems like something that I would file away in my mind and then vaguely remember down the road.

That’s not what happened, however; for whatever reason, I’ve been quietly stalking this musical since its inception, monitoring all news about its progress. Surprisingly, no one that I mentioned this project to had any idea what I was talking about, including Phish fans (Ha! Who’s the fan now?). I kept tabs on it from its first live reading in 2011 through its debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in California; I even investigated whether I could incorporate seeing the show with a trip to visit my friends in San Francisco (no go – too far away). When the show finally opened on Broadway in February of 2013, I moved it to the top of my wish list for shows to see (right behind The Book of Mormon). Unfortunately, while I was still working out arrangements with my friend Amanda, who is my Broadway buddy, to go with me, the show closed after only 28 previews and 28 regular performances. After that failed run, I assumed that the dream was dead. Hands on a Hardbody would be a footnote of Broadway history, one of many shows that couldn’t find an audience and that would essentially be forgotten. I just assumed that it must not have been very good.

Fast forward to 2014. We are lucky here in Albany to have free theater every summer through the Park Playhouse in Washington Park. They usually do two productions a summer – a regular show and then one that is more for children – and their shows are always on my radar as something to do in the summer. The quality and selection of productions varies year to year; I’ve only actually made it to a performance once over the years (Gypsy) but I was very impressed with it. In the past, their selections have been pretty pedestrian and have mostly been shows that I either have very little interest in (Spamalot) or are shows that I’ve already seen. I’ve always been glad to know that Park Playhouse is around to give people an opportunity to be exposed to the theater for free, but there has been very little overlap in what I’ve been interested in seeing and what they’ve performed.

Until this year.

When the announcement was made for this summer’s production, you could have knocked me over with a feather. They were doing Hands on a Hardbody! I was thrilled that I would have the opportunity to finally see it, but the selection was a little perplexing to me. Why was a theater company that normally does standards or bona fide Broadway hits embarking on the production of a show that lasted barely a month on Broadway? It seemed like a very confusing choice. But I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth; I’d been willing to pay Broadway prices to see this show and now I was going to be able to see it for free without having to leave town. I have to assume that the summer production wasn’t made specifically to make me happy in particular, but if it was they did a hell of a job. A rainy summer put a damper – literally – on the production’s month long season, but I finally found a clear night to see the show right before it closed.

After all the (self-created) hype and interest, I’m relieved to report that I really enjoyed the musical. I really have no idea why it struggled to find an audience – it was a funny show that also had some heart and the songs and score were fantastic. Some of the dialogue was a little ridiculous, but I find that to be the case with plenty of Broadway quality shows. The story was creative and different; while it wasn’t necessarily the quality of Book of Mormon, it was very entertaining and should have done better than it did during its original run. Perhaps these regional productions will drum up some interest and five years from now we’ll see a revival.

The show follows ten contestants who are participating in a promotion by a local car dealership – they must stand with one hand on a truck until there is only one person left. That person will win the tucks. Violate any of the rules – removing your hand, taking off the gloves that must be worn, leaning or resting on the truck – and you are eliminated. The story focuses not only on the actual competition, but on the back story of the individuals that are participating. With hard economic times upon them, many of them view the truck as their ticket to opportunity – they can either use the truck to get out of their Texas town or to find more gainful employment or they can sell the truck for a small financial windfall. The documentary on which the musical is based is from 1997, but the economic circumstances of the participants are even more relatable today, thanks to our recent economic downturn.

Among the contestants are a religious woman, a recently returned Marine, a self-identified redneck woman (cheered on by her husband), and a returning champ who won the contest two years ago and who serves as the de facto villain of the show. Each character is given a moment to shine over the course of the musical and has either a solo or duet where their story and personality are highlighted. Though the contestants are mostly tethered to the truck for the duration of the show, this isn’t a stagnant performance; there are momentary breaks from reality that allow the performers to move freely across the stage. The titular hardbody is also attached to sliders so that it can move with the performers – they are able to dance and reorient themselves without having to let go. It’s kind of cool to watch as they spin the truck round and round during the performance.

The strength of the musical is definitely the musical numbers; the songs stick in your head and quickly establish this motley crew of contestants. The songs cover many different genres to represent the personalities of the individuals; there is some gospel, blues, rock and country infused into the songs, so there really is something for everyone. The variety is impressive – Anastasio and Amanda Green did an excellent job of blending all those inspirations into a cohesive musical that doesn’t feel like a haphazard attempt to hit as many musical genres as possible. My only real complaint about the show, other than some hokey dialogue, is that it is on the long side. The performance that I saw ran about 2.5 hours and while some of that may due to the pacing by this particular cast, there is still a lot of material crammed into this show for them to cover even at a more frenetic pace. If they could trim just a little of the filler, they would have a leaner and meaner show that would be far more efficient storytelling.

Despite the lulls in some of the non-musical moments, Hands on a Hardbody was still an engrossing musical. The stakes are seemingly pretty low, but I definitely had people that I was rooting to win this fictional contest. I wasn’t the only one – when a particular contestant was eliminated, there was an audible gasp from the crowd. If you make people react that way, you’ve done something right.

I was curious enough about the original documentary after seeing the performance that I decided to plunk down some cash for a digital download. I wanted to know what they had created out of whole cloth for the musical and what they kept from the source material. I’d be waiting for the documentary to eventually come out on Netflix prior to this point, since I am loathe to pay $6 for a film I’ll see only once, but my inquisitiveness got the better of me so I had to break down and spend the cash. Surprisingly, the musical is extremely close to what happened in real life. While some things were added to ramp up the drama, the majority of the musical mirrors the documentary. Lines uttered by the real life contestants are used as song lyrics and while there are more contestants in the documentary, it is pretty clear that the characters in the play are direct copies of the Texan combatants. The documentary itself was fun as well, though because the musical paralleled it so closely it felt a little repetitive.

I don’t know what the future will hold for Hands on a Hardbody, but I am glad that I finally got to see it performed. Though it has a limited Broadway run, there was a soundtrack released and I’ll probably download it to be able to listen to the songs I liked the most. I hope that the show has a second life performed in regional and community theaters and I’m glad that the Park Playhouse took a chance on it. Personally, I think that they should have marketed the Phish connection harder to attract more fans; if you have a fan base that is willing to travel the country to follow your band, they would probably be willing to make the trip to NYC. I also wonder if people found the name confusing; when I hear the word hardbody, the first thing that I think of isn’t a truck (perhaps because I am not a Texan). Even if Hands on a Hardbody doesn’t become terribly successful, Anastasio and Green should be proud of their finished product. They created an impressive musical that is both entertaining and endearing.

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Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Comic Con Edition

I unfortunately wasn’t actually at Comic Con this year; I’ve never been to the convention because it is extremely hard to get tickets and it would be a pricey trip for me. It’s on my Pop Culture Bucket List, since the event has morphed from its humble beginnings to become something of a pop culture Mecca. All sorts of exciting entertainment news is announced, tons of celebrities stop by and there is limited edition merchandise that can’t be found anywhere else. The crowds are daunting and I’ve heard that there is a lot of standing in line (not my favorite activity) but even if it is a hot mess, I’d like to go just once to experience it. I feel like every serious pop culture maven makes the pilgrimage at some point and there’s not much that I take more seriously than pop culture. Maybe I’ll start a Kickstarter to fund this venture…..or someday I’ll be getting paid to do this and I can go on the company dime. A girl can dream.

Though I wasn’t in attendance, I sort of felt like I was thanks to the wonders of social media. I’ve been glued to my Twitter account during the convention to keep up on all the breaking news. I’ve culled all the info that I’ve processed in the last few days to pick out the best parts to share with you, dear readers. So pull up a chair and catch up on all the new wonderful pop culture news from the last week.

 

  • Jack White went to a Cubs game; it does not appear he had a good time:

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  • SOA star Charlie Hunnam missed Comic Con this year, but he sent this video instead:

 

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  • You take the jokes out of The Big Bang Theory – no jokes, all plot:

 

  • Comedy Central has some awesome news:

 

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  • Rob Lowe did a promo for Shark Week. It’s weird.

 

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers, released via director Zack Snyder's Twitter account as media announcement 7/27/2014

  • A preview of The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover episode debuted at Comic Con:

 

Tons of trailers:

  • The first trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey was released. Yawn.

 

  • New Boardwalk Empire trailer:

 

  • Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie:

 

  • A documentary about the ill-fated E.T. Atari game:

 

  • Jason Bateman and Olivia Wilde in The Longest Week:

 

  • The Maze Runner:

 

  • A trailer for the Batkid documentary:

 

  • Dear White People trailer:

 

  • A red band trailer for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For:

 

  • A red band trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine 2:

 

  • The first look at Kevin Smith’s new film, Tusk:

 

  • Michael Shannon in Young Ones:

 

  • Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) in Another Me:

 

  • Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash:

 

  • Norman Reedus in Air:

 

  • A new Hunger Games: Mockingjay trailer was released:

 

  • Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy in the new Mad Max:

 

  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies:

 

  • Mad Men is officially done – Stan Rizzo’s beard is gone:

  • Chris Pratt has some pretty sweet French braid skills:

 

  • Because the Internet is amazing, they have already made a remix:

 

  • Tumblr of the week: the very silly Nosemouth.

As always, we end with the mashups and supercuts

  • All the Star Wars references from Spaced:

 

  • A supercut of Gary Oldman dying in movies (spoilers):

 

  • A supercut of cats in the movies:

 

  • Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” as a monologue:

 

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  • Side by side comparisons of Weird Al’s parodies and the source material:

 

  • See how far technology has come in this supercut of computers from 80s films:

 

  • A compilation of grunge songs done in 8bit:

 

  • And finally, a supercut of all the times that Samuel L. Jackson says mother*cker in the movies. How has no one done this before? (It goes without saying, NSFW)

 

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – A Review

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I have never really been a big fan of apes; when I was little, anything simian-related would terrify me. My mom’s friend had a basket of toys in her living room that belonged to her sons and they would have to remove the King Kong figurine before I would go anywhere near the vicinity of the basket. Even if I wasn’t playing with the toys, unless I was assured that the scary figurine had been neutralized I was seriously stressed out. This was also an issue at the fair, where they had a giant animatronic gorilla in a cage as part of an exhibit on the circus; you could get me in the same room as it, but I kept my eye on that thing the entire time, convinced that it would come to life and break free. Between that and the clowns, that display was pretty much my worst nightmare come to life. I have no idea where this fear originated – I don’t recall having any sort of traumatic run-in with any monkeys – and while it dissipated as I grew older, I generally don’t seek out anything that has to do with apes or monkeys. Though I do like sock monkeys, so go figure.

Needless to say, given my childhood phobia I was not a connoisseur of the original Planet of the Apes movies; they had their heyday slightly before my time and I certainly wasn’t seeking them out on my own. My knowledge of the original film is mostly gleamed from other references in pop culture, most notably The Simpsons:

 

I didn’t see Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the theaters because I simply didn’t think that it was for me; given my checkered history with those of the chimp persuasion, I thought it was best that I sit this one out. Apes that eventually talk and take over the world are a hard sell for me. It didn’t help that I’d been dragged to see the disaster that was Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes reboot with Mark Wahlberg. Yowza – that would be enough to turn anyone off of ape movies. I only relented and watched the James Franco helmed sequel after repeatedly hearing that it was pretty decent. Turn out the buzz was pretty accurate – I quite enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes despite myself. I really got sucked into the story and was surprised by how invested that I became in a prequel to a franchise that I had little to no interest in. It wasn’t a perfect film, but it was far more entertaining than I anticipated; it was enough to not only win me over, but make me actually look forward to its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Yet when the new Planet of the Apes film was released, that old ambivalence resurfaced. Usually when any big summer movie is released that I have any remote interest in, I see it opening weekend. I had multiple opportunities to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but I just was pretty “meh” about the whole thing. Whatever enthusiasm that the 2011film had generated had slowly eroded over time; I was once again skeptical that I would find the next installment of inevitable ape domination all that compelling. But once again, critical buzz got the best of me – the general consensus was that the film was one of the better blockbusters of the summer. Admittedly, that is a pretty low bar given this summer movie season, but the promise of a film that wouldn’t suck was appealing enough to get me to finally commit to going to see it in the theater. James Franco wasn’t going to be in this installment, but Jason Clarke was his replacement which in my world is an even trade.

The first act of the film, I wondered if everyone else had watched a different movie than I was watching; I found the initial thirty minutes or so to be painfully slow. Since ten years had elapsed since the events of the last film, they had to spend some time orienting us on what has happened to the world. They also had to introduce the new human characters and explain the dynamics of the ape hierarchy. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it wasn’t always that compelling, especially when the apes are using sign language to communicate. I have no problem with subtitles, but they weren’t what I was expecting for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It was world building and it was necessary set-up, but I wish that they hadn’t spent as much time on it or had done it in a timelier manner. It wasn’t completely uninteresting, but I found my mind wandering a bit and was fighting the urge to check my cell phone to see how much time had elapsed (never a good sign).

I can’t put my finger on the exact moment, but somewhere in the second act I slowly was drawn into the film; perhaps it was because the action picked up a bit or perhaps it was the apes started talking more. Whatever it was, the film began to patiently reel me. The human characters were never all that interesting and mostly served as plot devices. That’s a waste of the talents of the actors that they assembled (the aforementioned Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell), but the film isn’t called Dawn of the Planet of the Humans. The humans are a necessary evil; there would be conflict eventually without them, but they certainly provide the spark to move things along. The franchise lives and dies on the apes and the philosophical differences between Caesar and some of his followers may not necessarily be completely new terrain but it was well done and fairly compelling. Actually, it must have been more than fairly compelling, because by the final act of the film I was fully in on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; it totally snuck up on me, but I was emotionally invested in what was unfolding. Of course, we know that the apes are eventually triumphant – it’s right there in the title – but I was curious to see if this film would deal them a setback on their way to world domination or who would be leading the charge. I was really curious how this all would unfold.

Andy Serkis continues to do revolutionary work as a motion capture actor and is primarily responsible for giving this movie its spark. If Caesar fails to be a compelling character, this movie simply wouldn’t work and Serkis more than delivers. In fact, all the motion capture actors deserve a tip of the cap; it is ironic that the CGI-created characters are more nuanced and three-dimensional than the actual three-dimensional people on the screen. Caesar, Koba, Ash, Blue Eyes and Maurice (my personal favorite) are fully realized characters that have distinctive personalities and points of view. Most of the older apes all experienced abuse at the hands of humans, but it has impacted them differently – some strive for peace while others are hell-bent on war. The dynamics of the ape community are complex and realistic – the struggle for power is clearly a universal trait. Watching a coup unfold is exciting, even in the animal kingdom.

Some other thoughts:

  • Perhaps the most one dimensional of the humans was played by Kirk Acevedo. It took me until halfway through the film to place where I knew him from, but then it dawned on me that he was Alvarez on HBO’s Oz. Wish he’d been given more to do, but still good to see him.
  • Thought I could keep all the different apes straight based on their personality, I could not for the life of me remember all their names. So I dubbed the member of the clan that challenges Caesar “Ape Hitler.”
  • A co-worker asked me to explain the status of the humans and apes at the beginning of the movie. My explanation “The humans have practically been wiped out by a virus and small bands of survivors are running low on limited resources. The apes are just chillin’, hanging out in trees, wife-ing up, having babies and learning to read.”
  • One point of contention – the apes now ride horses. Isn’t that a little disingenuous for a group that was all riled up about how they were treated by humans to use another animal as their source of transportation? #apephilosophicalquandary
  • I believe this film marks the first time that Andy Serkis has received top billing in a film. Good for him and well deserved!
  • For the record, it didn’t necessarily look like the humans were making the best use of their limited resources. I’m no conversationalist, but they could have made some smarter choices.
  • It is a little unsettling how quickly the apes pick up the handling of automatic weapons. This does not bode well for humans down the road.

Once Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets going, it is a quite fun film. I could have done with some slightly different pacing and some better development of the human characters, but I walked out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with my interest in the future of the franchise rekindled. I’d be perfectly OK with the next installment focusing solely on the apes – they are really the only interesting part – but I’m guessing that is unlikely. This has definitely been a slow summer movie season, but this film was not enjoyable simply because it compared favorably with the other dreck that has been released. This was a fun movie on its own merits and while I have no doubt that my enthusiasm for the next film will wane a bit in the time it takes to produce the newest installment, I’m still looking forward to what the apes are up to next.