'Hands on a Hardbody': Theater Review

Hands on a Hardbody Still - H 2013
Chad Batka

Hands on a Hardbody Still - H 2013

Perhaps not the most sophisticated musical ever to reach Broadway, but refreshing in its depiction of ordinary people facing ordinary struggles.

Phish frontman Trey Anastasio co-wrote the tunes for this twangy heartland musical about an East Texas contest to win a new pickup, based on S.R. Bindler's 1997 documentary.

In crudely simplistic terms, Hands on a Hardbody might be described as a low-concept Hunger Games with poor folks instead of kids. But this fact-based endurance contest is actually a sincere story of blue-collar Middle Americans living paycheck to paycheck while striving for a reprieve that’s as much symbolic as material. Examining hardscrabble lives rooted in today’s bleak economic reality is hardly the usual domain of the Broadway musical. That makes this gently appealing show a welcome change of pace, even if its folksy simplicity makes it a commercial challenge.

Every theater season invariably now delivers a fresh crop of stage musicals retooled out of movies, but documentaries are seldom sourced. Two notable exceptions are Grey Gardens, based on the 1975 Maysles Brothers film about the eccentric Bouvier Beale women of East Hampton; and Southern Comfort, taken from Kate Davis’ 2001 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner about a surrogate transgender family in backwoods Georgia.

Adapted from the terrific 1997 documentary by S.R. Bindler, Hands on a Hardbody seems an equally unlikely candidate for musicalization. Yet when you break it down to its core elements, the show is structurally not all that far removed from A Chorus Line. It weaves together the individual stories of a disparate group of characters whose collective goal in this case is not to win a part in a Broadway ensemble but to take home a brand-new pickup truck.

The eponymous contest was an annual event run by a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, where selected entrants vied to see who could remain upright with one hand planted on the prize for the longest time. Predating the epidemic of reality-contest television, the movie is both heartbreaking and quietly uplifting. By exploring their personal stories and driving motivations with dignity and compassion, Bindler offsets the inhumanity of people being put on display as they go through a grueling three-day physical ordeal. The film is a kinder, less downbeat modern-day equivalent of Sydney Pollack’s 1969 Depression-era dance marathon drama, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Doug Wright has honored the source material’s approach in his adaptation, originally seen last year at La Jolla Playhouse. Having resourcefully reimagined Grey Gardens as a musical, he sticks closer to the original mold on his book for this project, updating it to the present to tap into current economic unease. The key characters are represented accurately and without condescension, albeit some of them as composite figures, expanding on traits and back-stories only suggested in the movie. Significant dramatic license is taken in just one or two plot points.

Her weakness for clunky rhymes aside, Amanda Green’s lyrics take a similar tack, often building directly upon the flavorful dialogue of the screen contestants, as in songs like “Human Drama Kind of Thing,” “Hunt With the Big Dogs” or “Keep Your Hands On It.” If the numbers appear to be ticking off a laundry list of real-people problems – financial worries, healthcare, immigrant stigma, PTSD, marital fatigue – the melodies have plenty of variety. Green shared composing duties with Phish frontman Trey Anastasio; their songs speak primarily in a twangy country-flavored blues-rock vernacular, with detours into roots, gospel and even mariachi. The score is more pleasant than memorable, but even the lesser numbers serve to tell micro-stories that contribute to the broader-canvas picture of a struggling community.

At the time of his death, Robert Altman had been planning a dramatic feature based on Bindler’s doc. So it’s a serendipitous connection that JD, one of the central roles of this ensemble piece, is played by Keith Carradine, whose voice still has that same warm crackle it had back when he sang “I’m Easy” in Nashville. An oilrig worker forced into retirement by an injury, JD is the oldest competitor in the race, supported by a loving wife (Mary Gordon Murray) he takes for granted.

Also in the mix is Benny (Hunter Foster), a previous winner aiming to unsettle his rivals; Kelli (Allison Case) and Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson), two determined young contestants who spark up a tentative romance; Jesus (Jon Rua), a Mexican-American veterinary student looking to win the truck so he can sell it for tuition fees; Janis (Dale Soules), a feisty, no-frills hick with a cheerleading husband (William Youmans); Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), a cute blonde, nervous about accepting illicit help from the dealership manager (Jim Newman); Chris (David Larsen), fresh out of the Marine Corps and struggling with survivor guilt; Norma (Keala Settle), a zealous Christian with a massive prayer chain behind her; and Ronnie (Jacob Ming-Trent), a hefty black dude who believes an all-Snickers diet is the way to win.

Ronnie’s pithy wisdom, “Car don’t make money; truck make money,” sums up the weighted significance of the prize in the song “If I Had This Truck.” An emblem of economic security, independence, liberty, solidity and masculinity, the cherry-red model stands centerstage on Christine Jones’ basic set, moving with the contestants during the more spirited numbers. The standout among those is the mighty-lunged Settle’s rousing Hallelujah chorus, “Joy to the World,” in which the cast hammer away at the vehicle like a percussion instrument.

Given the static nature of the premise, director Neil Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo do a remarkable job of injecting motion into the production as the contestants drop out one by one due to physical or mental exhaustion.

The unpretentious integrity of the material, the straight-up presentation of the characters and the likable cast encourage you to root for them, yielding many affecting moments. However, the show seems stretched at two hours twenty; tightening it into a one-act might heighten its impact. But even if Broadway ends up being only a branding stop, this tender collection of hard-luck heartland stories should go on to become a popular regional entry.

Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York
Cast: Keith Carradine, Allison Case, Hunter Foster, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jacob Ming-Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Keala Settle, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, William Youmans
Director: Neil Pepe
Book: Doug Wright, based on the film by S. R. Bindler
Music: Trey Anastasio, Amanda Green
Lyrics: Amanda Green
Set designer: Christine Jones
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Musical staging: Sergio Trujillo
Music director, vocal arrangements: Carmel Dean
Orchestrations: Trey Anastasio, Don Hart
Presented by Broadway Across America, Beth Williams, Barbara Whitman/Latitude Link, Dede Harris/Sharon Karmazin, Howard & Janet Kagan, John & Claire Caudwell, Rough Edged Souls, Joyce Primm Schweickert, Paula Black/Bruce Long, Off the Aisle Productions/Freitag-Mishkin