The premise for the new Broadway musical, Hands on a Hard Body, is rather unusual. Based on a true story, the plot centers around ten individuals hoping to win a brand new red truck from a local automobile dealership. In order to be the victor they need to keep one hand on the parked vehicle at all times. Last hand on wins the grand prize. After a rousing opening number, “Human Drama King of Thing,” the show settles into what I’ll call a self-confessional state. One by one, in song or monologue, we learn about the men and women who believe winning the truck will be key to their salvation or at least a successful future. What has brought each contestant to Longview, Texas in the eastern part of the state? What is their personal story? Their goals and hopes? At first, we have sympathy and understanding. The economy in 1990’s Texas, when the original competition took place, was dreadful with high unemployment and the immediate future bleak. But the stories, self-examinations, and ruminations don’t resonate to a sufficiently high level for the audience to build a relation with each character. In a musical like A Chorus Line the monologues by the dancer’s had the feeling of urgency and heartbreak. You felt their desperation to land a spot in the chorus. When one of the dancers was excused from the line you felt their pain and devastation. In Hands on a Hard Body the majority of personal stories, initially poignant and despairing, lack the appeal that make you care when contestants start dropping out of the event. Instead of gasps of disappointment emanating from the audience there is more a muted feeling of “too bad” or “tough luck” attitude towards the wayward individual.
The other significant obstacle hindering the production’s success goes back to the initial premise—ten people, center stage with virtually no other scenery or props, with one hand plastered to a truck. For a Broadway musical this can be quite problematic as it precludes the opportunity for significant movement and musical staging. This is not to mean the audience is simply watching a static stage. Within the individual songs, many having a dream-like quality, the actors and actresses are freed from their real-world restriction. This structure, along with an allotted break from their confinement, allows for some mobility and fluidity. Choreographer, Sergio Trujillo (interestingly, listed as ‘musical stagings by’ as opposed to choreographer due to the lack of lively dance numbers) breathes some life into the production. Still, as skilled and proficient as he is Trujillo can only generate one real show-stopping number towards the end of Act I. The song, “Joy of the Lord,” starts slowly as Norma Valverde, played with religious zeal by Keala Settle begins, to laugh. At first a slight giggle it slowly builds until her infectious outbursts animates the other players, allowing them to release their pent-up energies and frustrations on the very vehicle, which has entrapped them. Soon the truck is being played like a large percussion instrument. The exhilaration and spiritedness of the number is the highlight of the musical. If they can get that performance on the Tony Award telecast Hands on a Hard Body will sell a lot of tickets.
The music and lyrics by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, frontman of the musical group Phish, combines country, gospel, Texas twang, the blues, and good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll. As with most Broadway scores these days the songs are mostly serviceable within the confines of the show. While a cut above what we’ve heard on the New York stage this season once outside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre it would be hard to remember a note.
Librettist Doug Wright tries to breathe some dramatic tension into the production. Unfortunately, as I’ve stated, there is very little of a connection between audience and cast. As contestants begin to fall from the wayside we should care, silently cheering for our favorites. At intermission I prodded my friend for his choice to win the contest. Of course, at the beginning of Act II his selection was the first to go. Mine was next. Were either of us upset or did we shift our allegiance to another? No. By the end of the musical, when the winning contestant is apparent there were no cheers or applause, but a quiet, ho-hum acceptance. A side story on the survival of the car dealership sponsoring the challenge becomes tiresome and boring.
Director Neil Pepe seeks to focus our attention on the stories being told, but with moderate success. The characters, somewhat quirky, slightly compelling just don’t command our full-blown attention.
Veteran performer Keith Carradine leads the group of ten actors tethered to the red truck. As JD Drew, he is the oldest contestant, philosophical and determined; Hunter Foster, is a bit manic in his portrayal of Benny Perkins, the seasoned veteran of such competitions; the aforementioned Keala Settle, as the spiritual Norma Valverde, is the one character true to her convictions; and Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson play a cute coupling, the closest you come to cheering for any contestant.
Hands on a Hard Body, a show that tries hard, but just doesn’t deliver the goods.