|The cast of 'Hands On A Hardbody' surrounds the title character|
The much-coveted cherry red Nissan pickup truck that is the title character of Hands On A Hardbody, the new musical at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is such stuff as dreams are made on. As one would-be owner of said vehicle puts it, “the American dream…a Japanese truck.”
With a blend of country, pop, rockabilly and gospel songs by Trey Anastasio (music) and Amanda Green (music and lyrics), Hands On A Hardbody relates the story of an endurance contest, in which the Nissan will belong to whoever can remain standing the longest while keeping one hand affixed to the truck at all times. It’s winner-take-all as the 10 competitors fight the hot Texas sun, boredom, exhaustion, and one another’s psych-out plays and annoying habits over four grueling days.
The competition is a modern take on the marathon dance contests held during the Great Depression, as was so hauntingly depicted in the novel and movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? But there is an important distinction.
The characters in They Shoot Horses have an air of desperation about them; they view the prize money as the only thing that stands between them and complete and utter defeat. No such burden haunts the quest for the Nissan. Oh, all of the participants have their reasons for wanting the truck, and owning it would make their lives a little better. But the stakes are not really that high for any of them. The winner may drive off with the prize, but the rest will get on with their lives as before and will have another shot in next year’s contest.
With nothing for the audience to look at but the truck and the people standing around it, that leaves quite a pickup load for the individual performances and the songs to carry.
This, in a nutshell, defines both the downside and the upside to Hands On A Hardbody, which is based on a 1997 documentary about an actual group of rural Texans engaged in just such a contest.
“Minimalism” is not a word too often associated with a Broadway musical, especially at Broadway ticket prices, although it is a relief to see a show that depicts a real-life story without resorting to bombast and overproduction. An example that comes to mind is last year’s irritatingly overblown Leap of Faith that occupied some of the same territory as Hands On A Hardbody. If that musical had been tamed down, and had lost its snarky attitude, it could have told a straightforward story of redemption and earned more respect for its efforts.
Without all the noise and funk, what Hands On A Hardbody has to offer is a stage filled with talented performers, starting with Keala Settle, last seen on Broadway in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, who brings down the house with her fiery rendition of the powerhouse gospel number, “Joy of the Lord.” Indeed, her singing is so infectious that even the truck joins the performance. It’s also great to see Keith Carradine (so memorable in The Will Rogers Follies) back on stage, though I do wish he had been given more to sing.
And how good it is that Hunter Foster has been given the opportunity to take on the juicy role of Benny Perkins, the cocksure defending champion. Mr. Foster has had a number of acting detours since lighting up the New York theater scene in Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors back in the day, and his more recent appearances were in non-singing roles that had him showing off his naked butt (Burning) or wandering aimlessly about (Million Dollar Quartet). Producers take note; this man can sing, and he can rule a stage!
Doug Wright’s book and Neil Pepe’s direction keep a tight rein on things, allowing the characters to tell their stories, form relationships, and sing their songs. Because of this approach, some wags have taken to calling Hands On A Hardbody the "redneck version" of A Chorus Line.
It’s probably not the best comparison. Anastasio and Green’s songs are the right numbers for the characters to sing, but only “Joy of the Lord” stands out. Fans of A Chorus Line are not necessarily the audience for Hands On A Hardbody, which is more likely to find a longer life traveling around the country than it will on Broadway, which really does like its frills and furbelows.
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