“As American as baseball and apple pie.” If everyone had a dollar each time that phrase was uttered, one probably could rival the new multi-million dollar winner of this weekend’s Powerball. Without a doubt, that saying is probably as old as the White House and in this day and age could probably be replaced with myriad representations of American iconography and culture. New musical Hands on a Hardbody, shines a spotlight on two USA symbols, rock and roll and trucks. And after viewing Hands on a Hardbody two things are evident, this musical is made for Americans by Americans and is as true to the red, white and blue as the old “stars and stripes” itself.
While not often seen in the New York metro area, a pickup truck is a still the automobile of choice for scores of Americans in the heartland and southern regions of the U.S. and is the main character for this production. Based on a 1997 documentary of the same name, Hands on a Hardbody centers on a group of contestants in Longview, Texas hankering to win a brand new truck by placing their hands on the vehicle and enduring the heat and exhaustion until all but one drops off.
The musical features an ensemble as eclectic as the proverbial melting pot. A middle-aged husband (who is an unemployed, disabled worker) is doubling down and trying to relive his youth by winning. A young Mexican-American man is hedging his bet to go to medical school. Another young man is looking to prove just how much of a Texan he is by winning the truck and a young woman that wants to burn rubber and drive that truck right out of Texas. A marine fresh from combat, a holy-rolling songstress, a gregarious playboy, a vixen with a few tricks up her sleeve, a no-nonsense middle-aged woman and a former winner looking to reclaim the glory of victory round out the characters placing their mitts on the truck. A conniving salesman, his racist female colleague, the mates of the older contestants and the announcer complete the cast of the production.
Similar to In the Heights, the plot of this musical is about achieving the American dream – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and each of these characters have a different comprehension of that dream. Courtesy of MGM and the Broadway musicals of old, I expect to view a musical with a bunch of extras that help to drive the musical numbers and along with the set, assist in making the numbers spectacular. Hands on a Hardbody isn’t that kind of musical. Although the pared down cast equates to a small group, the central character as well as the majority of the set is the truck. It is a frugal musical that fits well with this economy. It has a lot of heart and soul; I didn’t miss the pomp that most musicals can have one bit.
Most of the grit that makes Hands on a Hardbody grand comes via music by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio and a book by Doug Wright. Songs like “Joy of the Lord”, “My Problem Right There”, “Born in Laredo”, “It’s a Fix” and “Keep Your Hands on It” offer an accurate description of the modern American experience and allows their rock /bluegrass soundtrack to resonate with the audience. Led by veteran actor Keith Carradine, the cast does a superb job with the material. Instead of looking like perfectly trained artisans belting out songs and acting out a script, they appeared more like regular people sharing their dreams and stories of heartbreak and redemption. Each one of them was someone that you have probably met sometime in your journey and could’ve been sitting in the audience right next to you. If there were any negative aspect to this musical, it would be the lack of choreography. The choreography was very pedestrian and reminded me of something I might have seen in a 1990’s Fat Boy Slim video. Still, the choreography, or lack thereof, had its usefulness. The movements were on par with the look of the cast. After all, a pack of ordinary people, which the cast is supposed to embody, would look a little silly trying to complete choreography that required tons of strength and agility.
All and all I thoroughly enjoyed Hands on a Hardbody and could understand why the musical made its way from the La Jolla Playhouse to the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway. I throw my thumbs to ceiling on this one and would suggest scooting on down to see a musical that is as American as you and me.