Virginia Drew (Kira Lace Hawkins, L) has an argument with her husband, J.D. Drew (Anthony Cataldo) in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of “Hands on a Hardbody.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Virginia Drew (Kira Lace Hawkins, L) has an argument with her husband, J.D. Drew (Anthony Cataldo) in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of “Hands on a Hardbody.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
There have been seasons at the Wagon Wheel Theatre where, regardless of the shows, the cast has hit it out of the ballpark all season long: Strong acting. Perfect timing. Great chemistry. This season’s cast has been one of those stellar ensembles, and they hit a home run with the final show of the regular season, “Hands on a Hardbody.”

My expectations were rather low for the show itself: A musical about a contest in Texas where the contestant who keeps his or her hand on a Nissan Hardbody wins it. How can you possibly make that into a riveting two-hour show?

But the secret with this show – at least with the Wagon Wheel production of it – is the cast, directed by Artistic Director Scott Michaels. Each of the characters in the musical has a background story, and by the time I left the theater Friday night, I felt like the actors fleshed out each one to the point where I wanted all of them to win.

The contest takes place at Floyd King Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, circa the economic recession 2007-09. The stage is simple – a Nissan truck in the middle of it, with the floor made to look like a parking lot.

Benny Perkins (Nick Case, who played The Boy in “Peter and the Starcatcher”) opens the show, explaining how the contest works. The remaining contestants join him, as do the two people running the contest and a radio personality, and they sing the first song of the show, “Human Drama Kind of Thing.” Mike Ferris (Brett Parker Dixon, making his WWT debut) is the dealership manager, Cindy Barnes (Jennifer Dow, Rosie in “Mamma Mia!”) is the dealership’s public relations manager and Frank Nugent (Michael Pacholski, who played Jud in “Oklahoma!”) is the radio host.

Perkins previously won a truck through a similar contest, but for reasons revealed in the musical, he needs another one and aims to be a repeat champion. The character of Perkins has a lot of baggage, but until you learn what’s made him so bitter and angry, he just comes off as a racist, egotistical, uncaring jerk. Case, who comes off as a really nice guy when I’ve met him in person, plays Perkins perfectly. You really want to hate him, or hope that he changes his ways by the end of the show.

The second song, “If I Had This Truck,” explains more of the importance of a truck to a Texan and why everyone in the contest wants it. The contestants have slowly been getting to know each other and bonding, some more than others.

The audience is then introduced to Janis Curtis (Kathy Hawkins, Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!”), the mother of six almost grown kids. She is married to Don Curtis (Mike Yocum, Robert Scott in “Starcatcher”), who is on the sidelines watching but is an important part of Janis’ story arc. They’re not a rich couple, perhaps one might even call them white trash, but they have heart and love and a system of strong values. That is most evident in the fact that as long as Janis is not sleeping and going through all the contest miseries, Don is right there beside her. Hawkins and Yocum play their roles very well and bring some fun, light-hearted moments to the production. Yocum gets his own solo song, “If She Don’t Sleep,” which explains Don’s devotion to his wife.

Another couple going into the contest is J.D. Drew (Anthony Cataldo, who gave many great performances this summer, including Black ‘Stache in “Peter and the Starcatcher”) and Virginia Drew (Kira Lace Hawkins, Donna in “Mamma Mia!”). Virginia is sitting on the sidelines until the couple get in an argument and J.D.’s comments in anger send her home. If you’re a season subscriber to the Wagon Wheel, or if you were in the audience for “Mamma Mia!” you may remember that Cataldo and Hawkins ended up as a couple and married in that hit musical. They had great on-stage chemistry then, but I found it to be even stronger in “Hands on a Hardbody.”

J.D. suffered a rig injury, and can’t work, so the truck is very important for his self-esteem if nothing else, while Virginia is the wife who doesn’t think her husband loves her as much as he used to. Both have great singing voices, and Cataldo can do country just as well as any “bro country” artist. Cataldo and Hawkins both get to sing their own version of “Alone With Me,” she in the first act, he in the second, but both are great renditions.

To help his odds in winning, J.D. becomes partners with Perkins, though there are obviously times when Perkins pushes J.D. past his comfort levels in dealing with the other contestants. When J.D.’s body starts feeling pained though, it is Perkins who helps him push through it.

The roles of Kelli Mangrum and Greg Wilhote are played by Jessica Minter and Mark Mitrano respectively. They’re not a couple when the contest starts, but they find each other to be kindred spirits during the four-day contest. They have similar dreams, and played by Wilhote and Mitrano, who were exceptional as Molly and Ted in “Starcatcher,” you’ll be glad by show’s end that they did fall in love.

One particular actor in “Hands on a Hardbody” not only had an amazing voice, but she took the audience to church and brought the house down Friday. That was Leanne Antonio as Norma Valverde, who needs the truck for economic and family reasons. As I sat spellbound by Antonio’s powerful voice, I was mesmerized and couldn’t help but wonder, “Where has this voice been all season long?” If the Wagon Wheel had an entire season devoted to Antonio in lead roles, singing her heart out, I’d never get tired of listening and watching. Her performance of “Joy of the Lord” in this show felt like a resurrection, and Antonio should be highlighted often.

While Valverde is probably the most religious character in the show, her counter is the Marine veteran, Chris Alvaro (Connor Olney). He’s been to war in the Middle East. He’s seen things that people probably shouldn’t see, and it didn’t make him a better person. The suicide rate for military servicemen is unfortunately way too high, and Alvaro is on the cusp of being another statistic. The character is rather stoic until he rages on Valverde and the other contestants to shut up, but that just pushes Perkins to pounce on Alvaro. Olney has played comedic roles this summer, so it’s nice to see him get a chance to try drama, and he does well. The dramatic moments between Valverde, Perkins and Alvaro work so well because the actors do a great job playing them.

Racism is not only an issue between Perkins and the two black characters, but also between Jesus Pena (Henry Julian Gendron, who played Smee in “Peter and the Starcatchers” and Pepper in “Mamma Mia!”) and Barnes. Barnes thinks that just because Pena is Latino, he must be an illegal immigrant. Nevermind that he was born in Laredo, or that he wants to win the truck to sell it to go to veterinarian school – to Barnes he’s just another illegal Hispanic. Gendron finally gets his solo with the song “Born in Laredo,” and I thought he delivered the number just as the doctor ordered. Dow – who is one of the most open-minded people I’ve ever met – plays her overstressed role perfectly, too.

Of course, no contest is without controversy – well, in this show’s case, a lot more controversy – is that Ferris has rigged the contest with the hot sexy blonde in the contest, Heather Stovall (Lauren Drewello, who played Laurey in “Oklahoma!”). He promises her if she wins, she’ll become the advertising model for the dealership. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with the fact that he has too many vehicles on the lot to sell because he thought the contest would help, and his wife wants new flooring. Both Dixon and Drewello have great voices for country. Dixon was probably born for country, while Drewello can sing anything she wants, from Carrie Underwood to Kacey Musgraves. Dixon made me think of country voices like Dustin Lynch or Kane Brown but with more range.

The last contestant is Ronald McCowan (Amari Gamble). He thinks he knows what it takes to win, but he has a few problems, which he reveals during his song “My Problem Right There.” This is Gamble’s first show at the Wagon Wheel, but he showcases his voice best when he starts up the reprise of “Joy of the Lord” in Act II.

If there was one show this summer you should have seen or should see, “Hands On a Hardbody” is it. In my humble opinion, it’s the best show of this summer season, and it surpassed my expectations. Great job to everyone involved, especially the amazing cast which has been astounding this summer.

Overall, my rating of the show (out of four): 4.

It’s at the Wagon Wheel through Saturday. Tickets can be purchased through the box office; by calling 574-267-8041 or 866-823-2618; or online at www.wagonwheelcenter.org.