Update April 8: The producers have announced “Hands on a Hardbody” will close on April 13th, after 28 previews and 28 regular performances.
“Hands on a Hardbody,” an odd but tuneful new musical based on a 1997 documentary film about a sadistic endurance contest to win a pickup truck in Texas, might as well be called “American Idle,” or “They Shoot Horsepower, Don’t They?” or “A Chorus Line, SUV.” The contest was simple: The winner had to keep at least one hand on the truck, a Nissan Hardbody, longer than any of his competitors. The musical is also simple: Each of ten contestants gets at least one song to sing or monologue to speak about their hard-luck life before dropping out; they all also periodically dance around the truck. The lyrical refrain that ends the show is: “If you want something, keep your hands on it.” The advertising motto for the show, prominently placed on the marquee of the Brooks Atkinson Theater, where “Hands on a Hardbody” has now opened, is straightforward: “10 Contestants, 4 Days, 1 Truck.”
Would that get you to see the show?
But this is not the full story. The most striking aspect of “Hands on a Hardbody” is all the talent poured into it. Popular musician Trey Anastasio, founding member of the band Phish, is making his Broadway songwriting debut, partnering with Amanda Green (“Bring It On.”) and their songs are an eclectic mix of rock, bluegrass, gospel, blues and ballads sure to please more than just Phish fans. Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens, The Little Mermaid) wrote the book. Tony-winner Sergio Trujillo (Memphis, Jersey Boys, Next to Normal) has done the choreography. If you think it would be difficult enough to keep your hand on a pickup truck for 91 hours, try coming up with two hours of dance moves for people keeping their hand on a pickup truck. Trujillo’s moves score, hands down. Even the truck seems to dance.
The minimalist set of a car dealership’s lot with the realistic-looking shiny red pickup truck at its center is designed by the inspired Christine Jones, best-known for her busy, projection-filled (and Tony-winning) set of “American Idiot.”
Engaging such a community of impressive talents does not guarantee a successful musical – look at The Capeman.
But, as it turns out, it’s the people who are holding onto that truck who carry the show — the cast of “Hands on a Hardbody” is graced with well-known favorites and startling discoveries.
Click on any photograph below to see enlarged slideshow
Keith Carradine plays the oldest contestant, J.D. Drew, recently released from the hospital; he sings deep-voiced country songs that can make you swoon.
Hunter Foster plays Benny, who won a truck at the same contest two years ago, and is a nasty redneck who quotes Sun Tzu on the Art of War.
Keala Settle has a bio in the program that says practically nothing about herself, including that she was in the ensemble of Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Broadway. But all we need to know is what she does on the stage. She plays Norma, a religious woman backed by a prayer-chain at her church. Her big number begins with a giddy laugh, which grows into a guffaw…. and grows…and….grows…and then is transformed into an exuberant gospel number “Joy of the Lord”—soon joined by the rest of the cast using the truck like an orchestra, or at least a big drum.
Jon Rua plays Jesus, who has been accepted into Texas A&M to become a veterinarian, but can’t afford to go. His rousing, sardonic number, “Born in Laredo.” speaks to the prejudice of the contest organizers who say they’ll have to see his green card if he wins.
These are thrilling performances, and they aren’t the only ones. The 15 actors are all well-cast.
They deserve more memorable characters to portray. This is a paradoxical thing to say, since the characters are “inspired by” real people. The contestants are deserving of our sympathy: They have low-paying jobs or none at all.Even the owners of the car dealership are doing badly — as is the entire area around Longview, Texas, where the contest takes place…as, one can extrapolate, is the entire country.
These are people who don’t even allow themselves to have big dreams. Kelli (Allison Case), who works for UPS sorting packages on the graveyard shift, sings about her mother:
She’ll probably never get the chance to see Paris, Texas, or Paris, France
One should find their stories heartbreaking, and be reminded in their circumscribed lives of Lennie’s modest dream in John Steinbeck’s Depression-era story “Of Mice and Men” of one day being able to tend the rabbits on a farm. But, while the characters are treated with respect, they are painted too broadly and too briefly to move us deeply — and, one can add, they’ve been injected with too much “Broadway”: Since this is a Broadway musical, it is no surprise that Kelli forms a romantic bond with the other good-looking young person in the contest, Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson); it would be surprising if they had not. Other interactions are almost as pat.
There is another reason why “Hands on a Hardbody” is hard to see as more than a well-performed surface entertainment. Sure, there are some resonant metaphors and telling ironies in the Hardbody contest — a good symbol for the end of American mobility. These were all evident in the low-budget documentary. But there is a moment near the beginning of the musical when we learn that JD (Carradine) won’t let his wife Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray) work at Walmarts. “For $186 in take-home and no benefits?” he scoffs. Nobody forced the producers of “Hands on A Hardbody” to bring the show to Broadway and charge as much as a week’s take-home per ticket.
Hands on a Hardbody
at the Brooks Atkinson Theater
Book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green
Directed by Neil Pepe , “musical staging” by Sergio Trujillo, scenic design by Christine Jones, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Steven Canyon Kennedy
Cast: Keith Carradine
Mary Gordon Murray
Jay Armstrong Johnson
Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets: $57.75 – $151.75. Premium: $200. Rush: $32.