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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
HANDS ON A HARDBODY
at Brooks Atkinson Theatre

WHO WANTS IT MORE?
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Ph: Chad Batka

Frankly, it sounds like it began with a drunken bet: a musical based on a documentary film from the 1990s about a contest in Longview, Texas, where the competitors put their hands on a truck and wait to see who gives up last. How could this slow-moving spectacle of attrition offer up any kind of action? Plot development? Special effects? Dancing? Never fear; though it’s admittedly short on spangled chorus girls, Hands on a Hardbody does incorporate all the elements of a successful musical—and imbue them with down-home heart and a refreshing, if rueful, dose of real life—making two and a half hours of watching people touching a truck one of the season’s best musicals so far (and why, yes, it is April already).
 
The contest takes place in a small-town Nissan car lot where the manager, Mike (Jim Newman), and his PR team/employee Cindy (Connie Ray) are counting on the publicity to move enough cars for them to make their quota in what’s clearly been a bad year for everyone. As the clock starts, we’re gradually introduced to the contestants, each of whom has a different story, all of which are eventually revealed as the car-bound crew whiles away the hours. Most are down on their luck and hoping that winning the truck will get their lives back on track. Norma (Keala Settle) is an ebullient evangelist, sure that the Lord will provide a happy ending to her hard year. Jesus (Jon Rua) is a Mexican American desperate to put himself through veterinary school. JD (Keith Carradine) lost his job as an oil rigger after an accident from which he’s barely recovered and wants to keep his wife Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray) from having to go work at Walmart. Even Benny (Hunter Foster), the cut-throat competitor to beat, who’s won the contest once before, reluctantly admits that his wife left town with his last prize – and hey, he misses the truck.
 
The list of participants hoping that the truck can drive them to their American dream goes on, but the show manages to be far more than a litany of the woes of contemporary life. As the characters’ personalities emerge and the contest wears on, the relationships, realizations and revelations that develop bring not just pathos, but real drama, humor and warmth to center stage.
 
And speaking of center stage, yes, the gleaming red truck itself holds that place of honor throughout on the revolving set. And yes, the characters do take their hands off, from time to time, for dance sequences as well as for their 15-minute breaks. There’s even intrigue, as gravel-voiced hillbilly Janis (Dale Soules) starts to suspect that Mike is conniving to make sexy young Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) the winner. Still, there’s enough stasis that line dancing is a staple of the not-unimaginative staging. But if there’s less actual action onstage than in your average musical, the smart book (by Doug Wright, of I Am My Own Wife), clever lyrics (Amanda Green) and energetic roots-rock score (Trey Anastasio of Phish and Amanda Green) keep things lively. Songs like the twangy tribute to spousal support, "If She Don’t Sleep,” or the poignant “Alone with Me” do more than just introduce the characters; they set up the loyalties and frictions that will motor this musical through to its conclusion, and show-stoppers like the infectious “Joy of the Lord,” the testosterone-driven “Hunt with the Big Dogs” and the rousing “Keep You Hands on It” are exhilaratingly anthemic.
 
Director Neil Pepe manages to keep this clown car’s worth of colorful characters distinct and engaging, but much of the credit has to go to the cast itself. In this ensemble effort, each actor gets his or her star turn, and they all acquit themselves well, not forgetting Jacob Ming-Trent as Ronald, the Snickers-scarfing womanizer who comes back days after he’s disqualified to cheer Norma on, or Allison Case as UPS worker Kelli and Jay Armstrong Johnston as the unemployed Greg, whose budding romance may ruin their chances. What starts as a quiet, quirky musical becomes a high-stakes Grand Prix for its characters and audience alike. Everybody is in this to change their lives, and the more time we spend with them, the more we want everyone to win.

 


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