If summer heat hasn’t roasted your brains, you may have noticed something about local theater this July: It’s more daring, taken as a whole, than it has been for awhile. Four Tony nominees roll into the area, all of them more unusual fare for their target audiences.
Piedmont Players will do the regional premiere of the underrated “Hands on a Hardbody,” the 2013 musical about desperate contestants who try to win a truck by clinging to it longer than any other competitor.
Their Salisbury neighbor, Lee Street Theatre, will unveil “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning drama about an Oklahoma family tearing itself apart after the disappearance of its patriarch. (Polly Adkins and Anne Lambert, key members of the fine production by now-defunct Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, will reprise their roles.)
Blumenthal Performing Arts imports “If/Then,” probably the least familiar entry in its PNC Broadway Lights season. It tells parallel stories about a 38-year-old urban planner who moves back to New York; it starts one day in Central Park, then examines two paths her life could take if she makes certain choices.
And CPCC Summer Theatre, which devoted the first part of its season to the classics “Annie” and “Chicago,” steps into edgier territory with the locally produced premiere of “Sister Act.” The musical follows a gangster’s moll who enters a convent to hide from a killer and ends up changing its choir and her own outlook on life.
The rarest may be “Hardbody.” Piedmont has a habit of doing productions no one else around here will tackle – Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” Alan Menken’s “Leap of Faith” – and this comes with a pedigree. Phish leader Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green (“Bring It On”) did the music and lyrics, which range from country to rock to gospel, while Doug Wright (“Grey Gardens”) wrote the book.
Reid Leonard, Piedmont’s resident director, wanted to do the show last season after hearing the cast album. But a couple of board members said no – they wanted to do “Cats” first” – so he held off. That turned out to be a lucky break.
The Players hold a fundraising event each year where donors eat a dinner onstage and watch a guest artist perform. This year, David Larsen – who played U.S. Marine Chris Alvaro in the Broadway “Hardbody” – was the guest.
“He told us about costume changes,” Leonard explained. “One difficulty is that the show happens over a three-day period. So you need multiple costumes that get sweatier and more wrinkled and have dirt rubbed into them to give a sense of time passing.
“There’s a religious character who listens to music on a headset to keep herself energized. She sings ‘Joy to the Lord,’ where she starts and the cast enters a cappella. David said the actress on Broadway had nothing on her headset but one note – the first note of that song – which she heard over and over, to make sure she came in on pitch.”
Leonard found an apt corporate sponsor in Cloninger Ford Toyota: The truck in the show is a Nissan, but the dealership changes to Toyota at the end. The truck in the show won’t be real: A local body shop is lending one without a motor (to keep weight down) yet reinforced so people can climb on it.
And the timing is especially apt for this election year, showing men and women of different faiths and attitudes fighting on an even footing for a prize that could transform their lives. One of them, Texas laborer Jesus Peña, gets questioned about his green card.
“He sings ‘Born in Laredo,’ and I guarantee Donald Trump will not use this as his theme song,” says Leonard. “It is so drop-dead prescient. (Immigration) has always been an issue, and never as hot as it is now.”
Want to go?
Here’s a lineup, in chronological order: