Legit Review: ‘Hands on a Hardbody’

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.

Legit Review: 'Hands on a Hardbody'

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