Friday, March 22, 2013

Hands On A Hardbody Doesn't Play It Safe

Photo credit: Chad Batka
A musical about a contest in which the contestants can't take their hands off a truck. You have to applaud the creative time of Hands on a Hardbody for tackling a subject inherently difficult to musicalize. Though the show is not without its faults, it's a relief to see a musical that doesn't play it safe on Broadway.

Hands on a Hardbody, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is based on a 1997 documentary about an endurance competition at a Nissan dealership in Plainview, Texas. The stakes may not seem high, but for the contestants, the truck could mean anything from getting out of the town to supporting a family. Doug Wright's book does a good job of giving us glimpses into the lives of these people, but too much time is spent with the car dealers, who are counting on the publicity to increase sales. It takes away from the momentum of the contest.

The music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green is not very memorable (what does it say that while trying to remember songs to write this review, I keep singing, "I really need this truck. Please God I need this truck. I've got to get this truck"?) and the lyrics by Green are often pedestrian. But then there are moments of brilliance, as in the highlight of the show, a number called "Joy of the Lord" in which the cast turns the truck into an instrument (think "Trashing The Camp" in Tarzan). Sergio Trujillo's choreography is inventive in the way contestants are able to move while keeping their hands on the truck, though I could have done without the dream-like moments when contestants take their hands off the truck. It seems like cheating.

The show also benefits from a first-rate cast. Jay Armstrong Johnson (Greg Wilhote), who I've been singing the praises of for years, and Allison Case (Kelli Mangrum) inject some welcome youthful energy and have sweet chemistry in their duet "I'm Gone." Hunter Foster balances confidence and pain as returning champion Benny Perkins. Keith Carradine gives an understated performance as the oldest contestant, JD Drew. And Keala Settle is a welcome discovery as Norma Valverde, whose laughter in one scene infects the characters and the audience. If only that elation wasn't so fleeting.

1 comment:

Julie said...

To add to the very memorable lyrics you already mentioned:

"In Texas, without a truck... you're stuck." (Ok, I might be paraphrasing)


"Applebees... Walmart...Kmart...."

The former is my favorite, and my co-worker uses the latter to torture me.

On a (more) serious note: I agree that the musical doesn't play it safe in that it's got an interesting/difficult premise, but it doesn't overcome the inherent challenges. I was anxious just watching them stand around, being anxious. It could've benefited a great deal from more creative staging (but nothing could've fixed those lyrics besides a new lyricist).