Broadway musicals come with two basic expectations: song and dance.
“Hands on a Hardbody” delivers on the songs, but stymies itself in dance. When a shiny, red pick-up truck takes up most of the stage, there’s just no room to move.
Based on a real contest in Longview, Texas, this revolves around whomever can keep a hand on a Nissan Hardbody the longest.
The 10 hopefuls keep going in the 106-degree heat, through the night, only breaking for 15 minutes every six hours. And after 91 hours, 16 minutes and 21 seconds, one is awarded the keys.
The concept, which works in a documentary and in contests, does not translate easily to Broadway.
“Hands” has some fine moments, courtesy of powerful voices and interesting songs. It lacks, though, the vibrancy needed to sustain a Broadway hit.
The show is completely earnest and takes itself very seriously, as it examines some of the social and economic ills plaguing Americans. Using country, gospel, funk and show tunes, Trey Anastasio, a founding member of Phish, marks his Broadway debut creating the music with Amanda Green.
Keith Carradine (“Deadwood” and Broadway’s “Hair”) plays JD, who just got out of traction after falling off a rig and getting fired. Hunter Foster (“Bunheads” and Broadway’s “Hair”) plays Benny, who had won this contest earlier. They form an alliance.
People sing about hopeless lives, emptied 401Ks, dashed dreams and an America that has failed them. The military looms large as Benny’s son is a vet and Chris (David Larsen, “American Idiot”) has just come home from deployment. The war left him damaged and angry. Larsen gives a subtle performance, stone-faced for much of the first act until Norma (Keala Settle), a true believer, prompts a huge (and unprintable) reaction.
Kelli (Allison Case,”Nurse Jackie” and another “Hair” alum) is grateful for her job at UPS, but worries about family and friends who have lost their jobs, savings and hope. She falls for Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson, another “Hair” alum).
There’s the blond bombshell, Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, “27 Dresses”), who makes an inappropriate alliance with the car lot manager. Ronald (Jacob Ming-Trent, “30 Rock” and Broadway’s “Shrek the Musical”) uses his powerful voice to sing about his many women. And Jane (Dale Soules, yet another “Hair” alum”), who has her husband cheering her on from the sidelines.
Jesus (Jon Rua,”Law & Order” and Broadway’s “In the Heights”) wants to win the truck so he can sell it and use the money to become a veterinarian. Caucasians talk to him in a ridiculously fractured Spanish and assume he’s illegal. Jesus has a great number in which he sings, “I was born in Laredo. I am every inch the Texan you are.”
When Settle is allowed to sing, the musical takes off. Otherwise, it’s a bit too static, even though the actors make some use of the pick-up.
It’s easy to imagine this show gaining popularity in regional productions and high schools; everyone gets a chance to sing and the only prop needed is a pick-up. That means the show definitely has some miles on it. It just doesn’t quite live up to what we expect in a Broadway musical.