Legit Review: ‘Hands on a Hardbody’

"Hands on a Hardbody" - Best

Documentary inspires off-beat, endearing new Broadway musical

Well, Broadway finally got itself an all-American musical in “Hands on a Hardbody.” The question is, will an all-American audience go for it? It’s hard to picture hotel concierges, travel agents and group sales ladies pitching tourists a show about some working-class stiffs from East Texas clinging desperately to a cherry-red pickup truck in a marathon competition to win it. Better to comp New York cabbies and cops to spread the word about this offbeat but totally endearing show. Still, no matter how this dark tuner fares under Gotham’s cold glare, regional bookers should be lining up six deep.

Show opens in the parking lot showroom of the Floyd King Nissan Dealership in Longview, Texas, a dismal place where 10 people have committed themselves to the grueling and humiliating experience of competing in a marathon to win a brand new $22,000 Nissan truck.

Creatives Doug Wright (the Pulitzer-winning scribe who wrote the book), Trey Anastasio (the Phish phenom behind the music and orchestrations) and Amanda Green (the up-and-comer who wrote lyrics and music) waste no time in telling us why any presumably sane person would submit to standing under a broiling Texas sun with one hand on a truck for as long as it takes to outlast the competition and claim this prize.

The first number (“Human Drama Kind of Thing”) says it all: the rest of the country may be in slow recovery from a recession, but here in East Texas, where everybody’s out of work and in debt, they’re still stuck in the depths of a second Great Depression. So while this truck may look like a truck, “It is much more than a truck.”  In this part of Texas, it can also define your character, testify to your manhood and affirm your human value.

That point having been made — succinctly, and in a country-rock musical idiom that seems a natural fit for the sentiment — the unusually articulate book and well-integrated score take it deeper by letting the contestants explain how a new truck might turn their sorry lives around.

To JD Drew (Keith Carradine, just perfect), who lost his job and his pension when he fell off an oil rig, it means the money to pay his medical bills and stay out of the poorhouse. Interestingly, when he gets a solo, JD doesn’t vent about the rotten way that big oil companies treat their workers, but sings softly about how he regrets taking out his anger and frustration on his wife.

That happens a lot in this show — characters revealing unexpected aspects of themselves in both song and narrative — which makes it both musically unpredictable and dramatically credible. While a few characters do conform to type, like the sexy airhead played by Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Wright pretty much avoids stereotypes. Having taken his inspiration from an obscure 1997 documentary film by S.R. Bindler, he shows respect for the integrity of these real-life models.

Even as they acknowledge the personal problems that have reduced them to desperation, the determined contestants in this cruel contest also draw on their secret strengths. For the young kids played by Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson, it’s the dream of escaping their dead-end jobs and no-hope futures. For second-generation Americans like the one played by Jon Rua, it’s an education. For the trailer-park-poor mother of six played by Dale Soules, the loving husband played by William Youmans is her strength.

If the show has a weakness, it’s that the music is so consistently all-of-a-piece that some of the songs tend to melt into one another. But in a character-rich show like this, one of them is sure to stand up and make a musical statement that gets you between the eyes.

David Larsen hits his mark with “Stronger,” a soul-baring number from a Marine who shaped up a little too well in the service. So does Hunter Foster, as the tough-talking braggart who confesses how his life was turned upside down after he won last year’s truck contest.

Ensemble piece though it may be, the musical even has a show-stopper. It’s a gospel number, “Joy of the Lord,” sung by Keala Settle with the commitment (and vocal range) to bring down the house. That number also makes the best use of the truck by having the entire cast enthusiastically banging out the rhythms on its chassis.

With 10people stuck to a truck for much of the show, a choreographer doesn’t have much of a chance to do his stuff. But helmer Neil Pepe and Sergio Trujillo, who did the musical staging, find a lot of ways to push that truck around the stage and make it look interesting.

It actually is interesting, in the sense that watching these characters struggle with this big, heavy brute of a ride makes a strong physical statement about how much this artifact means to the people in this town — and how hard it is to grab it, unless you act as a group.

Because in the end, no matter who wins the damn truck, the people in this contest have made it a group experience, something that a song called “Used to Be” voices as a collective memory of what America lost when it sacrificed its small towns to commerce.

Hands on a Hardbody

Brooks Atkinson Theater; 1069 seats; $142 top

A presentation by Broadway Across AmericaBeth Williams, Barbara Whitman / Latitude Link, Dede Harris / Sharon Karmazin, Howard & Janet Kagan, and John & Claire Caudwell, Rough Edged Souls, Joyce Primm Schweickert, Paula Black / Bruce Long, Off the Aisle Productions / Freitag-Mishkin, of the La Jolla Playhouse production of a musical in two acts with book by Doug Wright from a film by S.R. Bindler, lyrics by Amanda Green, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green. Directed by Neil Pepe.

Musical staging, Sergio Trujillo; musical direction & vocal arrangements, Carmel Dean. Set, Christine Jones; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; orchestrations, Trey Anastasio & Don Hart; music coordinator, Michael Keeler; production stage manager, Linda Marvel. Opened March 21, 2013. Reviewed March 20. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

With Keith Carradine, Allison Case, Hunter Foster, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jacob Ming-Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Keala Settle, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, William Youmans.

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  1. WG says:

    Caught this show last week, and glad I did. It really is a show the entire nation could enjoy. There’s something for everyone. Other members of my family also liked it. It’s not the biggest or greatest musical of all time, but it’s cute and entertaining. And it made me think. Recommended.

  2. Susanne says:

    Kia Ora Vick Tim: My daughter Keala might not appreciate my remarks but then I’m her mother and when you talk disrespectfully about a hard working group of talented people of which she is one. Then it makes me wonder what kind of person could be so well rounded to be able to make such remarks regarding the show and the many talented people who put it together and somehow got it to BROADWAY.

    I wondered myself when my daughter called home and said “Mum I’m in a show that is nothing like anything you’ve seen before.” You see I have nursed Keala through 3 years of Tracy on “Hairspray on tour” almost three hours on stage with down time of about 20 minutes each performance. I have seen her perform as “Bloody Mary” in “South Pacific” on Tour and I’ve watched her play three parts in one night on “Pricilla Queen of the Desert” on Broadway. So I know a little about your so called “amaturish swill” Keala went through years of it in Primary , Secondary and College to get to were she is today, as I’m sure so did the other group members. Anyways I was concerned?

    However this changed as I saw the audience respond to each character I was so used to full on costumes and sets that when she walked on stage with her shorts and a T shirt. That was when I realized this one was not about GLITZY SETS, no GLAMOUROUS outfits, no GREAT headliners, just RAW TALENT COMING AT YOU from people who have worked hard and paid their dues. Courageous enough to break from the norm and set a new presidence. Trying to give you a birds eye view of what really is importand and going on in America to day. Everyone of us is a phone call away from anyone of them.

    When I first saw this show, I could see myself and many of my friends being protrayed in some part of this story and the music made it just that more real.. What is so wrong with showing the real people that they are not alone and that we are all in it together. My son who is in IT, 35 years of age has his own business, married with 5 children, has his own home, two cars said that “The last song that Hunter sang mum, said it all” Kia Kaha “HANDS ON A HARD BODY”

    • Vick Tim says:

      You will PLEASE note that not a SINGLE negative comment was directed at ANY performer, Ma’am. You have every right to be proud of your daughter’s performance, talent, and diligence. All the performers have my utmost respect for their skills, and my sincere wishes that they may have long careers in superior projects.

  3. Film buff says:

    the Hands on a Hardbody documentary film was never a Sundance entry. In one of the festivals’ worst decisions, S.R. Bindler’s now seminal film was ignored by the intelligentsia in Park city. The snub did not, ultimately, prevent the film from becoming a classic.

  4. Vick Tim says:

    Positively the most offensively bad piece of amaturish swill I have EVER seen. Ms. Green’s pedigree is FAR more impressive than her ability. It should NEVER have been put on Broadway. It might (MIGHT!) have made a passable little Off-Broadway diversion, though I doubt even that. I have seen better writing from high school students, let alone winners of the Pulitzer Prize! The book is charmless and dull, the music is COMPLETELY lifeless and generic (what the HELL happened, Trey???), and the lyrics are among the most tragically pathetic and cringe-inducing I have ever been forced to endure. Variety, I am sorry, but it it seems to me that you were either drunk when seeing this, or that you are being paid to praise them – possibly both. This review is an absolute travesty.

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