Imagine you’re trying to sell Broadway audiences on a new musical about a group of people competing to see which one of them can stand touching a pickup truck the longest. Would you really want to call it Hands on a Hardbody? To be sure, that’s the name of the movie on which the show is based — a 1997 documentary that chronicled the bizarre contest run as a marketing gimmick by a Nissan dealer in Texas. But it’s hardly a recognizable brand name, or any kind of selling point. Was Pickup! The Musical taken?
Still, once you get past the worst title in recent Broadway memory, and the realization that, yes, this really is a musical about people standing around a truck, Hands on a Hardbody is a surprisingly engaging little show. Developed at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, it has a fairly predictable book (by Doug Wright): 10 contestants, each of whom gets a soul-baring musical number, before being dispatched, Ten Little Indians-style, until just one is left. But it captures a working-class milieu with the sort of authenticity and empathy that you rarely find in a Broadway musical.
Trey Anastasio, front man of the jam-band Phish, and lyricist Amanda Green have contributed a flavorful country-Western score that is tuneful, well integrated and evocative of the setting. And choreographer Sergio Trujillo had found inventive ways to keep the stage active, despite the obvious restrictions. He cheats only once, in a fantasy number in which a UPS worker and a laid-off stockroom clerk float away from the truck to bond over their dead-end jobs and sing about their dreams. (But, hey, rules are rules: when all the contestants pound the truck as rhythm accompaniment to the big gospel number, I thought the refs were going to disqualify every one of them.)
(READ: A review of Trey Anastasio’s album Traveler)
If I feel more kindly toward Hands on a Hardbody than I did to the quirky “little” musical of last season, Once, it’s probably because I haven’t seen the movie on which this one is based. Once, I felt, turned a charming little Irish street film into a cutesy and conventional stage love story. Hands on a Hardbody surely took some liberties with its source too, crafting a series of neat personal dramas that hit on all the hot-button issues of these recessionary times. There’s an oil-rig worker who has been fired after an accident on the job; an ex-Marine suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; a hard-working Mexican-American accused of being an illegal alien. People sing about mortgage payments and health insurance and big chain stores that have taken over the small-town landscape. This is almost certainly the first Broadway musical with song lyrics that include the phrase “pre-existing condition.”
(READ: Richard Zoglin’s review of Once)
But under Neil Pepe’s restrained, well-paced direction, the show is fully road-worthy. Hunter Foster is the galvanizing center of the show, as a loudmouth veteran of the contest, while Keith Carradine, as the former oil-rig worker playing through physical pain, provides the emotional anchor. There are more overweight actors than you’re likely to see in a whole Broadway season, and even supporting players like Jim Newman, as the car dealer running the contest, and Connie Ray, as his PR woman, create vivid characters in just a few brief scenes.
The storyline could have used a few more surprises, and the show ends on a dismayingly conventional note of uplift. Some have compared it to A Chorus Line, but this gallery of desperate working-class dreamers is more reminiscent of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? — the 1969 movie, based on Horace McCoy’s novel, about doomed dance-marathon contestants in the 1930s. But that Depression-era drama showed the American dream to be a cynical con game, rigged against the little guy. Here even the losers emerge from the idiotic contest somehow hopeful and rejuvenated, joining in a rousing curtain number, “Put Your Hands on It.”
Oh well, this is Broadway, after all. If you haven’t got a good way of luring people into the theater, at least give them a reason to be smiling when they go out.