by: Sandi Durell
When I first heard the name of this musical my mind immediately conjured up some gorgeous guy with a great six pack surrounded by a group of eager females, their hands covering him seductively. Well, that’s how it goes when you don’t read the promo or decide you don’t want to know anything at all before seeing a show. So neophyte me quickly got it when I walked into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and realized it’s all about Texans competing in a contest to win a Nissan pickup truck by keeping gloved hands (you don’t want any paw marks on that freshly painted body) on that hard, shiny body; the last one standing the winner. It sure is an unusual stretch of creativity and imagination to use this premise for a winning new Americana musical! But it works.
With book by Doug Wright and music and lyrics by Amanda Green, music Trey Anastasio, this new and sparkly country/bluesy/rock Broadway musical, based on a documentary film by S.R. Bindler, is a reminder of how different life can be in the small Texas town of Longview to middle class Americans when winning a truck can represent transportation to and from a job or to get your kids to school, or something to sell for needed monies to pay for necessities. It’s a story about hope and dreams and new beginnings.
The folks competing each have stories to tell as they fight sleep deprivation, hunger, swollen numbing legs, hot sun and nightly chiggers in their efforts to come out on top. There’s Benny Perkins (the always great voiced Hunter Foster), a scowling nasty son-of-a-gun who’s angry with the world over the loss of his Marine son and a wife who left him – and he’d already been a winner in a former contest; JD Drew (the low key Keith Carradine), the oldest in the bunch, with medical issues and no job, his sweet voiced wife Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray), fussing lovingly over him during the 15 minute breaks they get but not often enough; the God loving Holly Roller type, believer Norma (Keala Settle), who listens to spiritual music to keep her mind on the present and offers up one of the most spectacular a capella renditions of laughter, from minor to major, as the cast joins in drumming on the truck to “Joy of the Lord.” She’s a sure-fire contender for a Tony nomination this season! The temperature rises higher as the all-too-quiet Marine contender Chris (David Larsen) unleashes wartime stories in a highly dramatic rendering of how the war experience made him “Stronger” as the cast spins that truck, frenzied, all over the stage.
To round out the various types are Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), a good looking blonde bombshell in shorts who has a thing going with the dealership guy Mike (Jim Newman), who’s attempting to rig the competition by giving her uppers to stay awake. Mike’s employee Cindy (Connie Ray), a real cracker jack Texas twanger, keeps reminding him his dealership isn’t doing that great. Dale Soules plays Janis, a been there, done that kind of middle aged woman who tells it like it is while her husband (William Youmans) is there to comfort her on breaks.
There are the young hopefuls, who form a relationship in the midst of this torturous effort, Kelli (Allison Case), a UPS worker dreaming of traveling to the exotic places on the boxes she sorts, and Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a wannabe Hollywood stuntman, who, together, light up the truck and stage in one of the few exciting dance segments. Jesus (Jon Rua), is constantly under attack by Cindy who reminds him of his immigrant status, and the jolly Ron (Jacob Ming-Trent), an early loser, is a pleaser and support system for Norma as she begins to lose faith. The cast is rounded out by Scott Wakefield as Frank Nugent.
As all, but one, let go they leave the stage and the feeling is unfulfilling in how they are dismissed.
The story highlights the less than fortunate in our society and gives its own personal preferences to political rhetoric, as all outlets for those in the public eye can do.
Be that as it may, social and political commentary aside, this Broadway musical has something to say and with the deft direction by Neil Pepe, with musical staging by Sergio Trujillo makes its point. The set design makes its statement minimally and creatively by Christine Jones, with costumes by Susan Hilferty and well placed lighting by Kevin Adams. *Photo: Chad Batka
“Hands on a Hard Body” Brooks Atkinson Theatre, West 47th Street, NYC