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.
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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.