|"Joy". Photo: Chad Batka
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/.
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-- God's name taken in vain