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Hands on a Hard Body
This truck that turns and gets pushed around is not only the object of desire for a group of needy, poor, and disillusioned Texans, but a symbol of hope and survival. It is certainly the visual focal point for us in the new musical Hands on a Hard Body.
The point is that there is plenty of heart and soul being revealed in this small-scaled musical about ordinary people with big feelings. These feelings declarative of their wishes and woes, are expressed through a truck-load of terrific songs by Trey Anastasio (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics and music).
Anastasio, who is a founding member of the rock group Phish as well as being named by Rolling Stone as one of the great guitarists of all time, has made a memorable musical theater debut with sixteen songs that prove him to be a real melodist. Green, the daughter of the incomparable Adolph Green (Singin' in the Rain etc.), delivers her finest work yet following her impressive lyrical contributions to the exuberant Bring It On earlier this season, and as she did previously with her debut show High Fidelity.
The show is inspired by a 1997 documentary film of the same title in which a limited number of people were able to enter a contest through a lottery sponsored by a local Texas auto dealership to promote business. Yet, this is one musical that could be said to be totally original in form, content and style. It's all about the one who can keep one of his gloved hands on the truck, allowing for fifteen-minute-breaks every six hours and a five minute break every hour will win the truck — no leaning or sitting down allowed.
But this is more than an endurance contest for the hard-scrabble and scrappy real life characters from whom book writer Doug Wright drew his inspiration. We watch each in his and her own way — with whatever mental, physical, and spiritual strength, even rage and defiance, muster the strength to survive the heat, stress and strain to end up the winner— and remain sane. Wright most celebrated as the author of I Am My Own Wife (Pulitzer Prize and Tony) and Grey Gardens, has probably succeeded as well as possible to connect the dots of these people's private and personal lives into one collectively unified experience. Despite its fragmented plot, Hands on a Hard Body is harmlessly enjoyable.
Aside from the two contentious co-managers of the dealership, a radio announcer, a doctor and an outside entertainer, there are the mostly out-of-work contestants who bring their anxieties, dreams and despair to the fore. Also at the fore, is the exciting and clever staging by Sergio Trujillo that keeps not only bodies in motion, but also that darn truck.
One has to assume that it is Neil Pepe's direction that has tied the variously emotional and ingratiating elements of this unique musical into a cohesive whole. If there is a sense of wholeness and unity of purpose in highlighting the plight of the various contestants, there is also a strange feeling that the key characters are not the most interesting, or the ones who manage to illicit our strongest emotional ties. This is a musical filled with colorful, courageous, and pitiful souls, but surprisingly we never feel connected to or compelled to root for the two most central characters. It takes courage to actually frame a musical around a contest in which we have no collective stake in the outcome for a central character.
The text does give added weight and time to the misfortunes of two characters: Middle-aged JD Drew (Keith Carradine), who fell off an oil rig, suffered a broken leg and was fired with no pension to support him or his wife Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray) . . . and Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster), who is tormented by the suicide of his son, a young marine, as well as by the fact that his wife ran off with another man in the truck that Benny won the year before. Carradine does sing, along with Murray, one of the score's most beautiful ballads "Alone With Me" in which is expressed his sense that he failed himself and his wife.
Carradine's twangy voice is appealing and suits his role. If there is a pivotal role it belongs to Perkins. As played with a demonstrably antagonist attitude by the formidably talented Foster (almost didn't recognize him). He is an anti-hero who is inexplicably out front and center as a kind of jaded binder to the already loose narrative without any indication that he might eventually win our empathy. Yet, there is little about either of these two men, their sorrows or their situations that give them an edge over the feelings we begin to have for the others.
A bevy of stand-out characters include Norma Valverde (Keala Settle). She's heavy-set, religious woman who lets her religiosity reach an ecstatic peak (quite a demonstration of out-of-control laughter), as well as instigating a high spirited gospel number. There's also Chris (David Larsen), an angry, maladjusted ex-marine; Jesus Peña (Jon Rua), Ronald (Jacob Ming-Trent) an African-American who loves the heat, but it doesn't love him; a young Mexican-American who dreams of going to veterinary school; Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), the pretty and sexy blonde who hopes to win by seducing the dealership's manager Frank Nugent (Scott Wakefield).
I was most impressed and emotionally involved with a young man and woman, disarmingly portrayed by Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case. The pair meet hands on at the truck, fall in love and with hands-off start a life together.
Interestingly, there is more tension built up in the desperate manager whose dealership is on the verge of being closed than in the contest. His unethical shenanigans do not go unnoticed by Cindy Barnes (Connie Ray) his racist, no-nonsense co-worker. And Heather's shenanigans do not go unnoticed by a feisty Janice Curtis (Dale Soules), who leads a rebellion with "It's a Fix." You get the picture.
This picture created by the talented collaborators within the inauspicious setting by designer Christine Jones falls short of being a really great show without an in-depth focus on its principal characters. It is, nevertheless, an often stirring collage depicting the undaunted spirit of the American dreamer, or as the rousing final song advises, "Keep Your Hands On It."
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