Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hands on a Hardbody Is a Great Surprise

The cast of Hands on a Hardbody

The story behind Hands on a Hardbody doesn’t immediately suggest a musical.  It is the story of a competition in West Texas where a dozen people vie to see who can keep one hand on a new truck the longest.  The winner takes home the truck.  The story became a documentary and now a musical.  Along with its East Texas setting and strong accents, it opens as if it might be a parody of hick stereotypes.  But Hands has something else on its mind.  It evokes a new recession version of They Shoot Horses Don’t They, with all the pathos that suggests, but without the persistent bleakness.  It is a fun piece, with an constant undercurrent of reality.
 We are treated to the stories of the contestants, who see the truck as a reward for perseverance and a ticket to better things.  The automobile as a symbol of the American dream has a long history, retold to a new generation every year.  The winner, whoever it is, dreams of driving away from their current troubles; for some of them, escape is figurative but for others it is the thought of quite literally leaving small town Texas.
Jay Armstrong Johnson & Allison Case
The music that gives voice to these dreams is by Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Amanda Green, lyrics by Ms. Green.  It is a broad sweep of styles including traditional Broadway along with country, folk and gospel.  Not all songs hit, but when they do, they soar.  Stronger and Joy of the Lord are two numbers that touched me, but there are a lot of great songs in this show.  The cast moves about surprisingly often, giving that they are often rooted to a truck (which swings and moves as much as anyone else).
Hands on a Hardbody is awash with local accents and colloquialisms, all carried well.  The show doesn’t make fun of these people, but exposes them and their dreams individually to the audience.  It stresses the commonality of experience and recession driven angst, despite the differences in location or economic status.
Filled with well-known names like Hutton Foster and Keith Carradine (who are both excellent), it was some lesser known members of the cast that made my throat catch.  Keala Settle plays a Latina mother with a strong faith in God.  She occasionally steals the show.  David Larsen and Jay Armstrong Johnson both turn in moving performances as young men on different paths - they look at the same truck and see salvation in different forms.  These 3 performers are lucky to get 3 excellent songs (Mr. Armstrong duets with the lovely and talented Allison Case).
Since it is a test of endurance, the energy begins to fade for a short while near the very end, but the play moves on and up quickly.  Book writer Doug Wright has created a nice level of tension that is expanded by the individual stories.  It explores the very American expectation that things will get better if you only work at it, but doesn't hide the ever-present possibility of failure.  And, how quickly Americans recover from it. Predestined outcomes often figure in Europe stories (star-crossed and doomed lovers, children paying for the sins of their parents or grandparents).  What Mr. Wright has done is take an American set of beliefs, things get better with perseverance and each set-back is temporary, and given them un-ironic voice in Hands on a Hardbody.
(facing) Keala Settle, Hutton Foster and David Carradine

Neil Pepe directs this group well.  Working with choreographer Sergio Trujillo, they have introduced plenty of movement and action into a piece that could easily have been static and boring.  Hands on a Hardbody is a very good show, uplifting without being sentimental.
Hands on a Hardbody
Music: Trey Anastanio and Amanda Green
Lyrics: Amanda Green
Book: Doug Wright
Director: Neil Pepe
Cast: Keith Carradine, Allison Case, Hunter Foster, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jocob Ming-Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Keala Settle, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, William Youmans

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