Monday, March 11, 2013

theatre review HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway, Feb 28

In order for a musical to be successful many things have to come together.  At minimum you need a good story, good music and a talented cast.  Creative and appropriate sets, costumes and lighting are also appreciated, though I have seen my share of good shows that had minimal creative aspects.  So, what can I say about the new musical Hands on a Hardbody?  It is a show with an interesting premise, a hard working cast and the creative use of a life sized truck on the stage, but also a show with an only serviceable score, characters that you don't get the chance to identify completely with and a repetitive nature to the proceedings.  But it is a memorable musical due to the characters and plot and the creative use of that truck.

Based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, the musical follows ten down on their luck people as they enter an endurance contest at a Texas auto dealership to see who can keep their hand on a truck the longest, with the last person standing who still has one of their hands on the truck winning the auto.  It is a competition that goes on for several days and focuses on characters that you rarely see on a Broadway stage.  They are all financially strapped Americans, desperate to win the "hardbody" truck in order to change their lives for the better.  It is nice to see a musical based on a movie that is about real people for a change.  This production with the same cast was produced at the La Jolla Playhouse last Summer and with some changes is opening on Broadway on March 21st.

Hands on a Hardbody is the clearest example of an ensemble show all due to the fact that throughout the entire show you always have several people on the stage with their hands firmly planted on that truck.  And while each of the characters gets their moment in the spotlight, the musical wisely focuses more on just a few central characters.  Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster are the two "names" in the cast, and their characters have more to do then the others, though there are plenty of times when the two of them, like the rest of the cast, are standing in the background with their hands on the truck while another member of the cast is the focus of the scene or song.  Both Carradine and Foster are up to the challenge of blending in with the ensemble and not stealing the focus from the other characters and both are given plenty of material to show off their acting chops and vocal abilities.  It is nice to have Carradine back in a Broadway musical after the great job he did in creating the title role over twenty years ago in The Will Rogers Follies.  Foster is playing the only real villain of the piece, the man who won the competition previously and is willing to do what he needs to do in order to win again, even though he has plenty of demons of his own he is having to deal with.  I liked how both men created characters that you were able to identify with very easily.

Keala Settle, Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine
Other highlights in the cast include Keala Settle as the religious lady who believes God is working through her and wants her to win the truck.  Settle gets one of the big showstopping songs that starts off with her uncontrollable laughter, segues into an impromptu drum session where the truck is used by everyone as their personal drum set and ends with some soaring vocals.  I also like Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson as two young kids who find a mutual connection during the contest and who share a extremely well choreographed dance on top of the truck as it moves and spins around the stage.

And the truck itself is pretty spectacular.  It is on casters so the cast is able to easily move it anywhere on the stage they need to, whether by all ten members of the contest in the early stages of the competition up to just a few people as the competitors start dropping out.  The direction by Neil Pepe and musical staging by Sergio Trujillo focuses squarely on not just having the truck sit center stage throughout the show, but to find an effective way to move it around and bring the individual characters into focus.  And while this was very creative for the first half of the show, including several moments when the truck and cast are spinning almost uncontrollably around the stage, after awhile it becomes more of a gimmick and less of an intelligent creative decision.  I guess I wanted to see different ways to bring the characters into focus then just having the truck move around the stage over and over again.

With a book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green and lyrics by Green, the show has it's heart in the right place and the dialogue and songs that are in a folk/soft country style fit the Texas characters fairly well.  However, I could have used less focus on the two people who run the car dealership and the issues they are having with their inventory and more focus on the participants in the contest.  As every time the car dealership office set glided on to the stage it seemed to stop the momentum of the story with yet another unnecessary scene or song that wasn't about the people hoping to win the truck.  We are rooting for the participants in the contest, not the people who work at the dealership, but I guess the creators wanted to show that even those who work at the dealership have issues of their own. I just think a "less is more" decision would have worked better for those two characters.

While overall I found this show entertaining and moving in parts, it is also somewhat repetitive with almost every character's big solo immediately preceding their elimination from the contest.  So repetitive that after awhile you know that as soon as someone starts signing a song that gives you a part of their past and allows you to connect with them that they will almost surely be exiting the stage as soon as the applause for their song ends.  And while I had no trouble sympathizing with the majority of the various characters, some of the dialogue and lyrics don't exactly fit the music for the show, and as such, don't exactly fit the characters.

And while the show is somewhat depressing, the final song is uplifting and one that will be playing in your head for days after seeing the show, while almost every other song in the score will be forgotten almost as soon as they end.  So, I'm kinda on the fence with this show- good cast, some creative direction and staging choices, some good songs but not an overall completely great show.

Official Show Site

Commercial for the musical:

Behind the scenes at the La Jolla production:

Trailer for the original documentary the musical is based on:

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