Admittedly I went to a performance of the aptly tagged new American musical, “Hands on a Hardbody,” with much trepidation. The music is by Trey Anastasio of “Phish” fame and I confess that I didn’t look beyond the rock star status attached to his name. I can’t claim to be a Phish head – actually I am seriously allergic to all kinds of fish which probably contributed to my negativity – and I figured the sheer volume of his songs would probably blow me out of my seat. Well, indeed I was blown away….but for all the right reasons! And so I immediately offer an apology and a tip of my Stetson to the creative team behind this fine addition to the genre of American musical theater.
This intriguing true story, written by Doug Wright, is set in Texas, and is based on a 1990s documentary film about ten men and women, each with a hard luck story to tell, who compete in a “Survivor” like radio station contest. Happy people are all alike, but unhappy people are different in their own way. This creates a great scenario for an inevitable theater piece, and defines the individuals who would enter such a harsh competition. The entrants in this contest have to keep at least one hand on a brand new truck in the brutal Texas sun and the person who lasts the longest wins the truck. To further the matter, it turns out the dealership is also fighting for its financial life as well, thus the success and the subsequent publicity of this contest is equally as important to them. Expect some nasty doings and deals fueled by desperation. We learn throughout the show of the rough roads traveled by these everyday folk, and the paths they hope to travel should they achieve this windfall. Everyone has a goal, a purpose, a dream … but these people live in the real world, and possess a serious, urgent need to win. All are worthy and deserving and holding firm to this metaphorical life force of a truck.
It always seems that anything associated with the oversized state of Texas appears bigger, brassier and brimming with bravura….think LBJ, James Dean in “Giant,” the Alamo, the Dallas Cowboys, and sassy Governor Anne Richards (ironically Texas is well represented on Broadway this season in “Ann” starring Holland Taylor, as well as in a musical version of “Giant ‘which ran at the Public this past Fall).
So, imagine my surprise when this engrossing story presented a tasteful, tuneful range of songs as varied and delicate as Texas wildflowers – tangy as barbecue yet as subtle as the yellow rose of Texas. It’s not the musical dynamics that I mistakenly thought would capture, perhaps drown my attention, it’s simply that the lyrics by Amanda Green are so well crafted and thought out that they perfectly augment Trey Anastasio’s appealing score and interesting orchestrations (note that a dobro and mandolin are a part of the band in the pit alongside all the digital synthesizers). The unpretentious songs are a loving pastiche – gospel, pop, blues, canons, rock, country, anthems – and smack of truth and sincerity as performed by a pitch perfect cast with pathos, heat, heart & soul – and when necessary, a well earned arrogance.
The open set never varies and consists solely of a standard issue unadorned Nissan truck (the irony here is obvious, the American dream in the form of a Japanese truck) situated center stage. And WOW! What this cast can do with a stationary truck! In light of the fact that the contestants cannot take a hand off this hardbody in order to win this prize, the creative team has outdone themselves in developing the soft underbellies of these characters. Intense emotion comes from this lack of motion as well as inspiring some imaginative choreographic and rhythmic moves thanks to the talented choreographer, Sergio Trujillo. The highlight of the show consists of the truck and all its components used by these rhythmic performers as a percussive accompaniment in a rousing gospel number – led by the vocally gifted Keala Settle – titled “Joy of the Lord.” Talk about pedal to the metal, the musical line so revs up during this number, I wanted to jump out of my seat and join in the joy. They put the members of “Stomp” to shame! Needless to say, the talent on stage is amazing with Keith Carradine, Hunter Foster, Jacob Ming Trent, Connie Ray and Dale Soules standing especially tall in their respective saddles.
Oddly enough, I did not find myself favoring a particular character to win as the story is so well balanced and the plot so evenly distributed, rather you become more wrapped up in the glory of the music and lyrics rather then guessing the winner. But we know that life does not work like that, so why should a Broadway musical? I’ll say no more except you should see this welcome piece of theater for yourself should you wish to know the outcome while enjoying a true American art form. The fun is in the glorious red, white and blue score presented in an imaginative original manner. Amanda Green hails from musical theater royalty, so I am not surprised she knows how to write for a show. The find here is Trey Anastasio, he obviously has done his theatrical homework and knows how to musically entertain an audience with songs that tell some really good stories within a tuneful narration. And isn’t that what all good cowboy songs accomplish?
The horse may be replaced by a truck as today’s mode of transportation but the open road always beckons and welcomes new songs. “Hands on a Hardbody” makes an admirable contribution to the journey ahead.
WHERE: Brooks Atkinson Theatre 256 West 47th Street New York, New York
Contributed by Joanne Theodorou