I wanted to love this show, I really did. Hands on a Hardbody, now running at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre,has all my favorite ingredients in a new Broadway show: an American creative team telling a uniquely American story, a solid cast, brand new music with a country twang, an innovative concept, and a successful out-of-town run at La Jolla Playhouse. There is nothing else like it on stage in New York. However, this new musical stalls on many levels.
The show’s premise is interesting enough. Hands on aHardbody is based on the 1997 documentary of the same name that follows contestants in a cutthroat Texas contest to win a brand new Nissan pick-up truck. The group of tenmust keep one hand on the truck at all times; the last competitor standing takes home the truck, and with it, a whole new lease on life.
This contest brings together a wide range of eccentric characters, skillfully represented by a talented ensemble cast. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to see actors of all shapes and sizes on stage- it is a story about “normal” Americans after all! Keala Settle as the Jesus-loving, gospel-singing Norma Valverde is the unquestionable stand out of the group. Settle’s earnest, joyful performance is only enhanced by her “knows no bounds” vocal chops. The woman can belt! Hunter Foster is almost unrecognizable playing the goatee-clad, arrogant, intimidating Benny Perkins who has already won a truck in the same contest last year. Foster’s vocal strength and stage presence anchorthe cast throughout the show. Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson are delightfully awkward as the youngest competitors, dreaming of a more exciting life outside of Texas is in the song “I’m Gone.” I love Connie Ray in just about anything (any fellow fans of “TheTorkelsons” out there?), and she adds some much needed humor to the show as the struggling dealership’s marketing director. Honestly, there are no weak acting performances, just weak material.
Despite my affinity for country/pop music, I foundHardbody’s score, written by Trey Anastasio of Phish and Amanda Green, dull and forgettable. The one trueshowstopper is “Joy of the World,” the gospel song turned full cast percussion experience lead by the infectious Settle. I wouldn’t have minded a few more “Joy” moments myself. The lackluster songs come in succession one right after another with very little dialogue in between. Lucky for me, several songs had been cut from the show since the beginning of previews, keeping the run time to 2 hours 20 minutes (which still seemed too long). The choreography (or should I say “car”eography, since almost all the numbers revolved around the bright red pick-up truck on stage) was just as monotonous. The car-eography was clever at first, but after an hour or so, I think we can ditch the truck for a few numbers.
Ultimately, I wanted to know more about each of the contestants, especially the ones who make it past the first day or so of grueling competition. Each character is written as a vague archetype: the Iraq-war veteran, the first-generation Mexican-American trying to pay his way through college, the mother of five with bills to pay, etc. Thus, I felt no emotional connection to any of the contestants. I didn’t really care who won the truck, which defeats the whole purpose of the show. I wanted someone to root for. Perhaps some extra visits from family members or boyfriends or bar buddies would have given the audience some more insight into the lives of these characters, but as written, the characters are not fully developed. And for a musical set in the parking lot of a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, there are very few light moments or joking to be had in such an absurd situation. Instead of jokes, Doug Wright’s book includes random and abruptpolitical commentary on everything from illegal immigrants to veterans’ affairs.
Overall, Hardbody was a nice try. I think it could have benefited from an off-Broadway run where the creative team could have streamlined the story and music numbers, but I’m glad an innovative American musical made it toBroadway nonetheless. The actors’ performances are stellar (again, Keala Settle is a force to be reckoned with), despiteweaknesses in the material. I really wanted to love it, butHands on a Hardbody never makes it out of the parking lot.