Sights and sounds are always part of theater but "Hands on a Hardbody" offers an additional sensory experience: that new car smell.
As far as folks at Minneapolis Musical Theatre know, "Hardbody" is the first time a play has been staged in an automobile dealership. The Luther Cadillac showroom will be taken over by the musical about Texans competing to maintain bodily contact with a truck for the longest time. The last person to take their hands off the pickup wins it.
When the call came, asking if Luther would be up for hosting the cast, crew and audience of the musical that runs through May 8, the response was predictable: "Are you kidding?" But the Roseville dealership immediately came around.
"The general manager of the store, Perry Feavel, he's game for anything," said Kate Uding, general counsel for Luther. She once worked with an MMT board member, who approached her about staging "Hardbody" at a Luther property. "Getting people in the store is part of our job, anyway, and this seems like a fun way to do that."
Uding said the dealership doesn't expect to generate sales from the show, which is using Luther's space for free. But MMT, which previously performed "High Fidelity" in the Electric Fetus record store, has plenty to gain, starting with a ready-made set.
"I don't know if we'd have been able to do this show any other way," said MMT artistic director Joe Hendren, noting that Luther was the first company approached about "Hardbody," nearly four years ago.
One option might have been to rent and ship a fake truck from a theater that has done the show but Hendren said, "You're talking thousands of dollars. You could try to hire a scenic designer and craftsmen to build it, but I wouldn't know how to estimate that."
Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, who also staged "High Fidelity," is thrilled nobody has to.
"What's exciting about this is that we're not trying to create some theatrical setting of a dealership. We're just going to one," she said. "You are immersed in the setting in a way you wouldn't be in a theater."
In fact, one challenge of singing and acting in a place more accustomed to wheeling and dealing is trying not to make the showroom work like a theater.
"We want to embrace the space for what it is. And that means embracing the things that have the potential to be distracting, like [Hwy.] 36 is right out the window. There's noise. And you're going to see headlights," said Pillatzki-Warzeha.
One distraction could come from employees. Luther closes at 6 p.m., which leaves time to set up for 7:30 p.m. shows, but Uding says salespeople, who will be visible from the "stage," may still be closing deals when the show starts. That's OK by Pillatzki-Warzeha, whose actors are prepared to work the occasional background "Sold!" into the show.
The other big ask from Luther, whose folks Hendren said "were willing to go along with us at all levels," was the vehicular star. Luther supplied the "hardbody," a red Nissan Frontier that will dominate the playing space. It's free, although there is a small benefit to the dealership: The "Hardbody" script specifies that contestants must wear gloves, so while the cast is acting, they'll be buffing and polishing, too.
Audience members can provide their own seating, as specified at the MMT website. To assure good views, theatergoers can opt for standing room (allowing them to wander around the action), three levels of provided seats or bring-your-own lawn chairs, placed on the passenger or driver's side of the Nissan.
It's a big undertaking for the small theater, which has an approximately $100,000 annual budget and no home space. But the director said the location of "Hardbody" — which has music by Trey Anastasio of jam band Phish and lyrics by Amanda Green — is not just a gimmick. It's a way to underline what a powerful symbol of upward mobility a truck can be.
"Some of the characters feel like they need it for their work or business. Some just need a vehicle — there's a character who rides their bike six miles a day. And some hope to sell it to pay for school," said Pillatzki-Warzeha. "For some, it's about the truck proving you are still useful, that you can still do something."
She thinks putting "Hands on a Hardbody" in a nontraditional venue sends a powerful message to people who don't often attend theater.
"I'm a Ph.D. student at the U of M and my work is in Indigenous performance because I'm a Dakota person," said Pillatzki-Warzeha. "One thing they talk about in Native theater is, 'How do you make intentional choices about space and remove barriers? Does the theater feel like a welcoming place to everybody?' "
That's a natural question for MMT, which is all about finding unusual ways to present shows.
"They might see a blurb about this and think, 'A musical in a car dealership? Oh that's really weird and interesting,' or, 'It's about a pickup truck? That's fun,' " Hendren said.
Whichever way audience members become intrigued, MMT has the same answer for them: Let's make a deal.
'Hands on a Hardbody'
Who: Book by Doug Wright. Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green. Directed by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha.
When: 7:30 Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 8.
Where: Luther Cadillac, 2325 Prior Av. N., Roseville.
Protocol: Masks and COVID vaccination (or negative test within 72 hours) required.
Tickets: $10-$45, aboutmmt.org