Most everything about the new musical HANDS ON A HARDBODY is wonderful. Everything, that is, except its title. A title that doesn’t sing – doesn’t say this is a musical.
A title that is a bit confusing and a hard sell to the average theater going public. If you do not know that it is based on a 1997 documentary of the same name you might think that it has something to do with the Medical Examiner’s Office on a CSI episode.
So forget the title and get yourself a ticket to see this most original, tuneful, exciting, tender and touching show with an exceptional cast portraying a cross section of Texans going through some hard economic times and having to enter a contest held by The Floyd King Nissan Used Car Dealership in Longview Texas to realize their dreams in a land of Walmart’s, Walgreen’s and Wendy’s.
HANDS ON A HARDBODY is about living the American dream that features center stage a 20,000 dollar, cherry red, Japanese pick-up truck as the grand prize. All that the ten contestants (whose names were chosen randomly from a hat) have to do is hold on to the truck with gloved hands as long as their faith, persistence and stamina hold out. Last sleep deprived person standing wins. They do get some breaks.
But the rules are strict and tough as we soon discover through some great story songs written by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green who as lyricist is fond of the triple rhyme.
Trey, a founding member of Phish is most welcome with this, his first Broadway show delivering a score that features bluegrass, gospel, country western ballads and some soft rock which should make for a great cast album.
The vocal arrangements and musical direction by Carmel Dean are exceptional as are the orchestrations by Trey Anastasio and Don Hart which are all enhanced by the well balanced sound design of Steve Canyon Kennedy. On an almost bare stage good lighting design is most important and Kevin Adams does not disappoint.
The show is well written and constructed by Doug Wright who does a masterful job at introducing the characters and allowing their back stories to evolve through song. It’s directed with a keen eye by Neil Pepe who keeps the show and truck moving along nicely allowing for some creative and clever choreography by Sergio Trujillo as the contestants cannot remove both hands from the truck lest they be disqualified. One hand must remain at all times on the pick-up.
Unforgettable characters abound. And they are portrayed perfectly. There is not a weak link and you will be surprised by them, laugh with them and feel for them as they attempt to change their troubled lives. Might even be annoyed by them.
But I have to single out Keala Settle as Norma Valverde who has the almost impossible job of starting her big number “Joy of the Lord” in silence as she listens to her head phones and slowly begins to giggle, resulting in a glorious number with the entire company rhythmically banging on the truck.
Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster are terrific. They are all terrific: Allison Case, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen (patiently wait for him to explode) Jacob Ming-Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray (spot on manager of the dealership whose motto must be “dress for success”) John Rua, the raspy voiced and very funny Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield and William Youmans.
They will touch you, one and all, and you will not soon forget them. Or the musical with that odd title. Highly recommended. At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
www.HandsOnAHardbody.com Photos: Chad Batka
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