For a show with a truck at the center of its visually imagery, the new Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody, based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, features a distinct shortage of forward plot propulsion. It begins with a blast of energy and features a tireless cast of fifteen, but despite a few distinct revs in the right direction, the show sputters and ultimately runs out of gas.
Had enough of the driving comparisons? Then Hardbody’s not for you. The show begins by introducing the contestants in a unique challenge. Ten out-of-luck Texans will hold their gloved hands on a truck (with a few anticlimactic breaks) until one man is left standing — and left with the keys to a brand new truck.
The first act speeds through the sob stories of the competitors — the stereotypical sadsack Christian (for God’s sake, give this woman — played by the talented Keala Settle — some interior life!), the ex-soldier, the former winner, the retiree, the wannabe stuntman, and so forth. The show touches on the plights of the contest’s sponsors as well, two Nissan employees who are similarly struggling to make ends meet.
With a book by Doug Wright that overdoes the exposition, there’s ultimately little opportunity here to overcome the inherent flaw of the show’s premise: its lack of conflict and momentum. Whether or not one embraces the show will likely depend on whether one is excited by the prospect of a nearly plotless, largely conceptual musical that explores its characters or whether one prefers plot-heavy, traditional book musicals. The direction, by Neil Pepe, tries to incorporate movement despite the limitations of the story but with only moderate success. Scenic design by Christine Jones does little to help; behind the contestants is a huge, dilapidated billboard, which essentially never changes until the very end of the show and does nothing to elucidate the setting in any interesting way.
An acquaintance of mine summed it up simply this way: with all the contestants competing against themselves, there’s no time for conflicts to arise between them (and thus give the show the spark it needs). There’s a fleeting moment in the second act when a wannabe stuntman, who’s fallen for a pretty young female competitor, contemplates taking his hand off the truck to follow her off once she’s reached her breaking point. Not only does he struggle with his own qualms, his remaining rivals all try to goad him into throwing in the towel. Here, finally, we see the contestants pitted against one another, and for a brief moment it’s possible to forget the rest of the show’s flaws.
The score, by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green (daughter of legendary lyricist Adolph Green), is a mixed bag. There are rousing moments here and there, and the finale (“Keep Your Hands on It”) underscores the central themes of the show nicely, but there’s a sameness to the songs that keeps one asking, as the next number arrives — “Isn’t this song reminiscent of the last one, and the one before it?” Anastasio, whose roots are firmly planted in the freeform “jam band” tradition of Phish, has done well to lend his pop aesthetic to a theatre piece, but he may not yet have mastered the art of crafting unique, captivating melodies for characters on stage. Green’s contributions, for the most part, only exacerbate the problem, favoring broad ideas over specific imagery — except for a few clever instances, including a song lamenting today’s corporate culture, with chain-store lyrics: “Walmart, Walgreens, Wendy’s, Applebee’s.”
For all its flaws, there are strengths to be noted as well. The uniformly excellent cast — including vets Keith Carradine, Hunter Foster, and Connie Ray — as well as Keala Settle, the breakout star of the production, who, using her robust gospel voice, manages to make something of her otherwise one-note, broad-brushstrokes Christian character — can’t be beat.
Thanks to captivating performances and creative choreography by Sergio Trujillo, there are moments of joy in this otherwise static musical. From the start, there’s promise, but despite a few exciting diversions, this hardbody drives straight down the middle of the road to its own detriment.