Although rare, there were once American musicals that talked about politics and even acknowledged that poor people existed. Bertolt Brecht was their father. Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, written in 1937, was a fable about workers and corporate greed so outspoken that the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to shut it down; 1957's Fiorello dramatized New York mayor LaGuardia's reformist efforts and his support for factory workers. These days, though, Cradle is looked on as a historical oddity, and despite a killer score, Fiorello doesn't get produced. This is a shame, because I'd really like to go to the theater some night and hear a group of operatives comparing "Politics and Poker": "If politics seems more predictable/That's because/Usually/You can stack the deck." Or strikers singing: "Must we sew and sew/Solely to survive/So some low so-and-so can thrive?/No!/He'll fry in Hades if it's up to the ladies/Waistmakers Union Local 25!"
Slow Dance With a Hot Pickup isn't a rabblerouser like Cradle, and it doesn't have the overriding wit of Fiorello, but it is an engrossing and intriguing show about real people in desperate circumstances, and it most definitely has its heart in the right place. This is a completely original work by John Pielmeier, who wrote Agnes of God, and composer Matty Selman; this production at Boulder's Dinner Theatre is being presented as a workshop in preparation for a national tour, so the show is still fluid. It's also a big risk for BDT, whose clientele tends to expect old chestnuts and family-friendly outings.
The plot involves eight people competing in a radio contest: There's a shiny new truck in the middle of a car lot, and the contestant who can keep a hand on it the longest will win it. Like the wretched dancers in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, these people hang on for days, becoming more tired and quarrelsome by the hour — and also more concerned about each other and more empathetic. The contestants include a Vietnam vet; an Asian woman who wears a cowboy hat, wants to be a country singer and is secretive about her country of origin; an out-of-work ex-con; a tough-talking, hard-praying female auto mechanic; a young girl with a secret; a rather innocent teenage guy; a good-natured waitress; and a middle-aged man worn out with caring for his illness-ridden ex-wife. The off-stage voice of a sadistic radio announcer (Scott Beyette) issues directives and makes arbitrary judgments: Someone returned from break a second late, someone's hand slipped momentarily from the side of the truck.
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Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through November 5, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.
Twining together eight narratives isn't easy, and the script needs shaping. Sometimes it's a little obvious, too: Does the harried waitress have to be ill on top of everything else, and if she does, does it really have to be breast cancer? Why not something a little more original, like multiple sclerosis? But there are still many moving and resonant moments. The music ranges from okay to excellent; the song that sticks in my memory is a funny, hummable ode to coffee. And overall, the production is low-key and straightforward, with everyone in regular clothes and a sparse set that highlights the glossy, inhuman power of the huge truck in the center of the stage.
The cast is full of talent — both vocal and thespian — and the members rise brilliantly to the challenge of making ordinary people riveting. Alicia Dunfee's auto mechanic is as touching as she is tough — and a profound departure from the actress's last manifestation here, when she glided elegantly across the stage as the title character in Hello, Dolly! John Scott Clough is entirely convincing as the ex-con, and Dwayne Carrington exudes decency as the vet. There's gentle warmth from Passion Lyons, who plays the young woman with a secret, and charm from the show's other youngster, Brett Ambler. Leonard Barrett always knows how to seal the deal on stage, and his passionate breakdown as he sings about the burden of caretaking is an emotional high point. I've seen Barb Reeves perform many times before, but I've never seen her like this; the sincerity and integrity she gives the waitress represent everything that's right about this gentle-hearted show.