“It’s much more than a truck,” the characters sing to the audience in the opening song of Hands on a Hardbody, the ambitiously simple new musical currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. It must be, if a 2 ½ hour musical has been written about it, but after seeing a performance, I left the theater feeling more flat than any of the tires on the titular truck that sits center stage for the entire show.
Based on S.R. Bindler’s 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body, which focused on 1994 contest in Longview, Texas in which people competed to win a Nissan truck by keeping one hand on it for the longest, Hands on a Hardbody has an impressively unique score by Trey Anastasio of band Phish (music) and Amanda Green (music and lyrics). A fusion of country and rock, the songs are certainly unlike anything else on the Great White Way right now. But the show, directed by Neil Pepe and featuring a book by the Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), suffers from its subject, which results in a stagnant story riddled with so many characters that none of them warrant the investment needed to sustain a character-driven musical.
Every one of the people competing for the truck have their reasons for desperately wanting it. There’s J D Drew (Keith Carradine) was laid off from his job because of an on-site injury (and lost his pension as a result) and his wife Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray) who doesn’t think her husband’s injured leg can last through the contest. He resents her devotion to him, rather than appreciating it, and the distance that has invaded their marriage is illustrated in the song “Alone with Me.” Norma Valverde (a joyous Keala Settle) steadfastly believes her faith in God will get her through the long days in the heat (and she shares this in the acapella song “The Joy of the Lord”.) Greg Wilhote (Jay Armstrong Johnston), wants to drive to California in the truck to seek work as a Hollywood stuntman. He quickly falls for U.P.S. worker Kelli Mangrum (Allison Case); the two sing one of the best songs of the show “Gone,” where they daydream of where they would travel.
Jesus Peña (Jon Rua) is trying to pay for veterinarian school and Ronald McCowan (Jacob Ming-Trent) thinks eating Snickers will see him through the competition. Janis Curtis (Dale Soules) has an iron will and her husband remains in the parking lot to support her. Iraq war veteran Chris Alvaro (David Larsen) appears to be the strong, silent type, while Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster) has won the contest before, but, we learn, his wife has left him and taken the truck with her. The lovely Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) forms an unethical alliance with the proprietor of the dealership, Mike Ferris (Jim Newman), whose dealership is suffering, as his employee Cindy Barnes (Connie Ray) keeps reminding him.
The potential for psychological warfare is ripe in this kind of situation, which demonstrate endurance and pursuit of the American Dream, and alliances are quickly formed between different competitors. But that kind of story is driven by characterization, and the only way these characters are deepened through numerous “I Want” songs, which introduce why they want the truck and what they will do if they win it. This gets old quickly and causes the show to drag. The cast is very talented, and Case in particular is underused; although Foster is miscast as Benny. He is not intimidating enough to play such a macho villain, and he comes across the most honestly in his second-act solo “God Answered My Prayers,” when he shares the bitter disappointments of his life.
Hands on a Hardbody is unabashedly no-frills; the only prop other than a few lawn chairs and coolers is the truck itself. The choreography, by Sergio Trujillo, consists mostly of waving one hand in the air, but there a few fantasy sequences where characters actually move away from, or onto, the truck. The song “Stronger,” when Alvaro shares the pain of post traumatic shock disorder after serving in the armed forces, is movingly written and powerfully delivered, but the decision to feature the other cast members marching in formation, is awkward and detracts from the poignant message of the song, which portrays the still-dated ideas of masculinity that permeate this country. When he ends the song with, “I don’t feel like living any longer,” the severity and desperation of not only his situation, but the situation of everyone in the competition, hits home.
It is refreshing to hear such somber topics such as poverty, lack of health care, shell shock from the war and racism addressed so bluntly in a Broadway musical, as well as seeing women of all physical sizes and shapes featured onstage. But overall the show, despite informing us that “it’s a human kind of thing,” remains distant and the humans in it are unformed. This musical, no pun intended, could use a hand.