Cynical audience members can be forgiven for wondering if the new Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody will be, much like its subject matter, an endurance test. After all, just how interesting can it be to watch 10 people try to keep their hands firmly on a Nissan truck for over two hours? Fortunately, the tuneful score by Trey Anastasio (of the rock band Phish) and Broadway baby Amanda Green, the clever choreography of Sergio Trujillo, and, above all, the considerable talents of the cast make the time go by faster than you might imagine.
True, the piece, based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, could be more dramatically compelling. Librettist Doug Wright (a Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am Own My Wife) can’t do much more than briefly introduce us to the 10 men and women standing out in the blazing Texas heat day after day in an effort to win the coveted vehicle. Plus, their stories have a mostly common thread; they’re poor or unemployed and need the car (or the money they could get from selling it) to merely survive. Even oily car dealer Mike Ferris (the fine Jim Newman) and public relations gal Cindy Barnes (a funny Connie Ray) are in deep financial doo-doo.
Among the most sympathetic contestants are God-loving mom Norma Valverde (the outstanding Keala Settle), who also gets the show’s catchiest number, the gospel-flavored “Joy of the Lord”; Mexican-American Jesus Pena (Jon Rua), who wants to go veterinary school; and dreamy-eyed youngsters Kelli Mangrum (Alison Case) and Greg Wilhote (Jay Armstrong Johnson), who sing of finding a better life in Hollywood. We also feel for war veteran Chris Alvaro (a very good David Larsen), though it would help if he spoke more than one word before launching into his expository ballad “Stronger”.
Most of the older folks also grab our attention too, especially J.D. Drew (the always welcome Keith Carradine), battling the after-effects of falling off an oil rig and the overprotectiveness of his loving wife, Virginia (the excellent Mary Gordon Murray), and the feisty Janis Curtis (Dale Soules), who lends the story some much-needed comic relief.
In fact, none of the characters come off as completely unlovable, not even buxom, vain Heather Stovall (a perfectly-cast Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), who proves to be in cahoots with Mike. And as hard as the creators try to make loudmouthed, booirsh former champ Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster, working overtime) the guy we want to hate, he’s merely annoying. Moreover, when he finally reveals his inner demons in “God Answered My Prayers,” we’re forced to reconsider any of our previous negative thoughts.
Admittedly, the show isn’t for audiences who want their Broadway outings to be full of spectacle. Christine Jones’ set and Susan Hilferty’s contemporary costumes are extremely simple, and director Neil Pepe isn’t much concerned with flashy effects. But if you keep your expectations in check, Hands on a Hardbody will go down pretty easily.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Keith Carradine, Hunter Foster, Mary Gordon Murray, Allison Case, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jacob Ming-Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Keala Settle, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, William Youmans
Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 2/23/2013
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036