Thursday, March 28, 2013

Theater Review: Hands on a Hardbody

"Joy". Photo: Chad Batka
Faith Themes Drive This Musical Joyride
By Lauren Yarger
Hands on a what?
The title of Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green's new Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody has had people thinking the show is about everything from gay sex to a bodybuilding competition to a bunch of singing auto mechanics. What it turns out to be, however, is a surprisingly entertaining, emotion-filled story about a bunch of down-on-their luck Texans who rediscover faith -- in themselves and in God.

Based on a 1997 documentary film of the same name about  a real contest to see who can endure the longest to win a truck, Hands on a Hardbody follows five days of competition among four women and six men who try to be the one to drive home a shiny new truck from a Nissan dealership in Eastern Texas.

Everyone must keep one hand on the truck (a.k.a. a hardbody) without breaking contact during a grueling marathon sponsored as a publicity stunt by a local dealership to fuel sales in a dragging economy (much like the dance marathons of the Great Depression). The contestants are allowed only short breaks from time to time. The last one to take his hand off the truck wins it. Radio DJ Frank Nugent (Scott Wakefield) keeps everyone updated on the competition and who drops out when.

I must admit that even knowing what the story was about, I wasn't expecting much. After all, how far can you take that story line and why was talented Choreographer Sergio Trujillo attached to the show for "musical staging." Just how much dancing can the cast do while stuck to a car, I wondered?

Turns out Trujillo came up with some creative movement after all and even has the car join in via some drive and reverse movement and a revolving stage (set design is by Christine Jones). Some of the action takes place during the rest breaks, so director Neil Pepe makes sure we're not looking at a stagnant scene of 10 people just standing around with their hands on a truck for two and a half hours. Lighting (Kevin Adams, design) dims around the edges where the contestants take their break and spotlights an interaction between two characters downstage, for example.

We learn the stories of the contestants through dialogue in the book from Doug Wright (who won the Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife) and lyrics by Green. Keith Carradine plays old-timer JD Drew, who worries his wife, Virginia (Mary Gordan Murray) with his participation so soon after a leg injury suffered in a fall from his oil rig. Their marriage is falling apart and Virginia's constant coddling from the sidelines annoys JD.

Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster) won the hardbody contest a couple of years ago and plans to outlast the challengers. He and JD form an alliance to help each other through the ordeal. Rough-and-tough Janis Curtis (Dale Soules) gets support from loving husband Don (William Youmans), who applies reverse psychology by telling his wife that she can't win the truck. Anytime you tell Janis she can't do something, you see, she'll do it just to prove you wrong.

Bombshell Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) wants the truck so she can drive to her job at the rib joint instead of having to ride her bike 8 miles every day. Sleazy dealership manager Mike Ferris (Jim Newman) offers to help her stay ahead of the competition -- but she is reluctant to accept his compromising terms.

Young Greg Wilhote (Jay Armstrong Johnson) dreams of becoming a Hollywood stuntman. He and Kelli Mangrum (Allison Case) make a pact to use the truck to travel and see some of the places Kelli has only imagined visiting when she sees far-off labels on the packages she processes at her UPS job. Ex Marine Chris Alvaro (David Larsen) hopes to escape the nightmares he is having since returning from his tour overseas and to find the strength to go on living for his wife and son.

Ronald McCowan (Jacob Ming-Trent) doesn't plan well and thinks a constant diet of Snickers bars will sustain him through the competition. He's out of it quickly, but returns to encourage spirit-filled Christian Norma Valverde (Keala Settle), who believes Jesus will give her the truck, which she needs to drive her children to school and her husband to work.

Jesus Pena (Jon Rua) wants to pay the bills and finish veterinarian school -- and is tired of being looked down on because of his Mexican heritage. Dealership PR officer Cindy Barnes (Connie Ray) informs Jesus that if he wins the contest, she'll have to see some proof of citizenship, like a Green Card. Jesus, it turns out, was born right here in the US, proving his point about prejudice.

The book could use some edits. The second act never accelerates. The characters are so numerous, we get only a quick trip around the block with them instead of being able to go on a road trip. Some of the show's 19 musical numbers, which steer more toward the style of Phish band founding member Anastasio than toward the Texas country twang we're expecting, could be cut to give the production more mileage.

Most of the tunes are quite pleasing, however, including a rousing gospel number called "Joy of the Lord" and a humorous "God Answered My Prayers" (he said no). In fact, I very much enjoyed Settle's portrayal of a devout Christian woman, trusting in the Lord. She finds God might not want her at the competition to win the truck -- that she might be there instead to make Him known to the other contestants. It's a realistic moment for any of us who walk with the Lord -- his plans are not always ours.

Her example reignites the faith of Benny, who is bitter following the loss of his family. He recommits his life to the Lord, on his knees, right there on stage. It's real and convincingly done by Foster, who is in one of his best singing vehicles in recent years.

This show manages to proclaim the gospel and portray a believer who isn't an uptight Republican hiding homosexual tendencies (the typical stereotype for a Christian we see on stage these days.) Kudos!

The title could use some total bodywork, though, to avoid all the confusion over what it means. How about "Keep on Trucking"?

Hands on a Hardbody runs at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th St., NYC. Tickets and info: http://www.handsonahardbody.com/.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

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I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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