Where the rubber meets the stage

A world premiere from NYC at BDT

Glenn Ross photography/www.glennross.ws

It´s human nature to want to be first. From something as simple as two friends on a morning jog to the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, people are driven to outstrip the next guy. It’s hardwired. It’s why both joggers push a wee bit harder with each passing mile until they’re sprinting the final block home. It’s why America will always hold dear that “one giant leap” moment when Ivan was the runner-up. It’s why men crow when, as teenagers, they’re the first to plant their flags in some young lovely’s undiscovered country.

This innate desire for primacy is at the heart of Slow Dance With A Hot Pickup, a musical about eight contestants in one of those whoever-keeps-their-hands-on-the-truck-longest-drives-awayin-it contests. Like Highlander by way of a mall parking lot and your local Toyota dealer, there can be only one when it’s all said and done. Will it be the ex-con seeking redemption? The young woman looking for fame and fortune so that she can save a loved one from a crippling disease? The Big Boy waitress who’s never won a thing in her life? Or maybe the would-be Asian country music sensation?

Slow Dance’s plot isn’t the only part of the show that keys on the need for top seed. A co-production of Boulder’s Dinner Theatre and New York City’s Big Fish Big Pond, Slow Dance With A Hot Pickup is being performed for the first time anywhere right here in beautiful Boulder. Imagine if Chicago, Les Miserables, Wicked or Cats had opened for the first time ever at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre. Seeing such a show in its literal infancy would give you bragging rights — at least among other theater-philes — for the rest of your life.

While only time will tell if Slow Dance With A Hot Pickup joins that list of Broadway blockbusters, judging from opening night I’d say it has more than a fair shot. Its songs are catchy and playfully leap from genre to genre. Its characters are readily recognizable without being trite. It balances abundant humor with no small amount of pathos. It possesses an emotional center both genuine and powerful.

As playwright John Pielmeier and Emmy award-winning musician and lyricist Matty Selman are still in town tuning and tweaking Slow Dance, I’m going to devote the rest of this review to my thoughts on how they might improve their creation. So if you want to go in fresh as a daisy and spoiler-free, I’d recommend you stop reading now and skip to the final paragraph.

The heart and soul of Slow Dance With A Hot Pickup is its characters. One of the most gut wrenchingly honest moments I’ve ever seen on stage was when Leonard Barrett Jr.’s character admitted that part of him wished his crippled ex-wife — whom he still loves — would just die. Slow Dance needs more of that. It needs to let the audience know the extent of Brett Ambler’s character’s conflict with his father before the shouted declaration in his final two lines. The fact that Passion Lyons’ character’s spina bifida-suffering sister is really her daughter needs to not be a throwaway moment neither recognized nor referenced again. It needs to take the audience’s breath away when, after four grueling days, Dwayne Carrington’s character lets go of the truck to shake hands with a former rival and give the victory away to a  woman he’s only just met. Though that moment is strong now, it cries out to be epic.

The hands-on-truck-contest premise, though wonderfully novel, inherently limits the action on stage. The many musical interludes that allow the characters to dance and sing away from the truck are, therefore, essential. They do, however, become somewhat predictable. I’d love to see a rotating stage beneath the truck to provide more kinetic visuals during the contest, as well as opportunities for additional choreography and tonal variation in the musical asides.

For still being drenched in amniotic fluid, Slow Dance With A Hot Pickup is already a mature piece of musical theater. With some time to evolve and a lot of love, it could become a bona fide classic.

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On the Bill:

Slow Dance With A Hot Pickup plays through Nov. 5 at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre. Tickets are $35-$56. 5501 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder. For tickets or information, call 303-449-6000, or visit www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.