×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Hands on a Hardbody

The fresh premise of "Hands on a Hardbody" -- the last of 10 Texans to break contact with a Nissan pickup truck drives it away -- doesn't disguise a debt to other tuners.

With:
JD Drew - Keith Carradine
Benny Perkins - Hunter Foster
Norma Valverde - Keala Settle

The fresh premise of “Hands on a Hardbody” — the last of 10 Texans to break contact with a Nissan pickup truck drives it away — doesn’t disguise a debt to other tuners. Competitors singing nostalgically about their backstories are right out of “A Chorus Line,” with “Working” populist sentiments musically conveyed through “Best Little Whorehouse” country rock. Still, the La Jolla Playhouse attraction feels pretty special in its unique flinty integrity and wholesome earnestness. After a tune-up, this vehicle could be in it for the long haul.

Librettist Doug Wright (“Grey Gardens”) deftly teases a narrative arc out of a prize-winning but little-seen 1997 documentary shot in Longview, Texas, a place where — as we’re repeatedly told in song and monologue — a truck isn’t just useful for work or convenient for the family but a symbol of possession and assertion of identity.

Wright makes shrewd use of 2012’s harder times to spur on the competitors to hoped-for glory, and if the pic’s implicit metaphors tend to get literalized (whatever you want to accomplish in life, “keep your hands on it”), at least he keeps things tart instead of drenching it all in glib moral uplift.

Wright is also very much in sync with the songwriters, an inspired blend of theater and rock in Amanda Green and Phish phrontman Trey Anastasio. While a few numbers spin the show’s wheels — songs about the immigrant experience or postwar stress disorder don’t have enough to do with the contest — the team at its best serves up a funky array of down-home, bluegrassy expressions of want and need.

“The Tryers” should get instantly snapped up for Olympics coverage this summer, and the inevitable gospel number is for once a true showstopper, the dazzling a cappella “Joy to the Lord” stomping into your heart with hardbody-slappin’ rhythm. (Speaking of “Stomp,” it’s a pity helmer Neil Pepe rudely stomps on the number’s ovation so a character can indulge in a gratuitous bleat; he really does need to let us cheer.)

Though it takes a while for character conflicts to build into genuine tension, Wright’s “Grand Hotel” panorama of plains types mostly succeeds in transcending stereotype. No one seems to have decided whether past winner Benny (Hunter Foster) should be a rat, buffoon or figure of sympathy, and contest coordinators Connie Ray and Jim Newman are pushed into disturbing, condescending caricatures out of another old tuner, “Smile.”

But Keith Carradine’s crotchets winningly temper his reminiscences for a lost America, and fresh playing and writing lift such familiar tropes as the shy young couple (Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case), crusty good ol’ gal (Dale Soules) and devout Christian mom (thrilling Keala Settle taking the lead on that “Joy” number) into contestants we can believe in and root for.

It’s disappointing when a character cheats, but even more so when the show does. Pepe and musical stager Benjamin Millepied permit the contestants to break contact with the truck in order to blast power ballads downstage or engage in stiff, dull movement patterns. Each participant’s elimination loses impact because we’ve already seen their hands come off the hardbody, if only under Kevin Adams’ fantasy lighting.

Worse, to achieve some visual variety, the contenders are asked to pull and prod the pickup all over the place like a skidding Zamboni. A turntable could have displayed truck and contestants from all angles without compromising the ground rules, but now everyone’s huffing and puffing in efforts that have nothing to do with the contest and don’t even result in interesting stage pictures. If the truck is, as press notes claim, “the 16th character,” someone needs to keep that guy from overacting.

Popular on Variety

Hands on a Hardbody

La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Calif.; 504 seats; $85 top

Production: A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, music by Trey Anastasio and Green. Directed by Neil Pepe. Musical staging, Benjamin Millepied; musical direction, Zachary Dietz.

Creative: Sets, Christine Jones; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; arrangements, Anastasio and Carmel Dean; additional arrangements, Matt Gallagher. Opened, reviewed May 12, 2012. Runs through June 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN. Musical Numbers: "It's a Human Drama Thing," "Alone With Me," "Master Benny's Winning Strategies," "If I Had a Truck," "A Little Somethin' Somethin'," "My Problem Right There," "Burn That Bridge," "I'm Gone," "Joy of the Lord," "Stronger," "Hunt With the Big Dogs," "Hands on a Hardbody," "Born in Laredo," "It's a Fix," "Used to Be," "God Answered My Prayers," "The Tryers," "Joy of the Lord" (Reprise), "Keep Your Hands On It."

Cast: JD Drew - Keith Carradine
Benny Perkins - Hunter Foster
Norma Valverde - Keala SettleWith: Allison Case, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jacob Ming Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Mike Sears, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, William Youmans.

More Legit

  • Broadway-Breakfast-Split

    Variety to Celebrate Second Business of Broadway Breakfast With Thomas Schumacher, Diane Paulus and Diablo Cody

    Variety has announced the lineup for its second annual Business of Broadway breakfast presented by City National Bank. Joining the breakfast on Oct. 7 is the president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher, who will take part in the event’s keynote conversation. In his position, Thomas oversees the company’s worldwide stage productions, which [...]

  • Sue Wagner John Johnson

    Tony-Winning Producers Sue Wagner and John Johnson Announce New Venture, Wagner Johnson Productions

    Sue Wagner and John Johnson, seven-time Tony award-winning producers, announced Wednesday that they have embarked on a new theatrical business venture, Wagner Johnson Productions. Under the name, they will produce and general manage a wide scope of theater productions. One of Wagner Johnson Productions’ current projects is a musical rendition of “Almost Famous,” which will [...]

  • Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne

    Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne Starring in Broadway Revival of 'American Buffalo'

    Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell will star in an upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” The show marks Rockwell’s first appearance on the Great White Way since his 2014 performance in the revival of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” The five-year absence saw him pick up an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, [...]

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content