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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Hands on a Hardbody
So anyone with the nerve — the tenacity — can drive away with the American dream.— Frank Nugent
Hands on Hardbody
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Allison Case, and Hunter Foster
(photo by Kevin Berne)
The first few times devout Norma Valverde (a transcendent Keala Settle) opens her mouth, she mentions the Lord. A gospel number is thereby preordained. Like many other new musicals set in the present, the promising Hands on a Hardbody aims for heightened naturalism.

Tony Award winner Once, for instance, grounds its numbers in the reality of Irish pub-crawling troubadours. However, nothing beats gospel, that mainstay of weekly church services, as the presiding style for believable showstoppers. Its inclusion here is so expected that when “Joy of the Lord” starts near the end of the first act, it feels anticlimactic. Then the writing and staging shift ingeniously into higher and higher gear until the performance reaches full throttle.

The source material is a '97 film documentary depicting a Texas competition in which a Nissan pickup truck is given to the contestant who keeps his or her hand on the vehicle the longest. The musical sets itself on a challenging artistic road. It wants to honor the small town reality of its subject matter — the hardscrabble lives of people for whom a truck would make a world of difference — while crafting a crowd-pleasing musical on a fairly large scale. Like its characters, the show achieves its ambitions when tethered most directly to reality.

“Joy of the Lord” begins as if Settle's Norma has been listening to the number through her headphones. She sings unaccompanied until the others join in, still a capella. The beat is so infectious they pound on the car, transforming it like a prop from Stomp into a percussion instrument. Moving in unison, they start spinning the car. Choreographer Benjamin Millepied (best known for his work in ballet and the film Black Swan) makes the most of his only opportunity to let loose.

At the top of the second act, the unabashedly entertaining title number is delivered as an amateur rockabilly act by the radio DJ Frank Nugent (Scott Wakefield) and Mike, the Nissan dealership's manager (Jim Newman, doing well in a tricky role) to rouse the contest audience, and us, from the doldrums of a long night.

When the creative team can find no overtly realistic pretext for a number they seem to lose their theatrical nerve. Its as if their admirable desire to avoid the showbizzy sins of condescension, flash, or clich?neuters their ambition.

Composer Trey Anastasio (leader of the seminal rock band Phish), and lyricist/composer Amanda Green (scion of Broadway legends Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman) set out to write a score the characters would listen to. As conceived, most are tuning in to the same radio station. They express themselves predominantly in a folk-country style that's tangy and pleasing. The score would achieve greater distinction if Anastasio and Green found just a few more opportunities to test the musical limits of the characters and themselves.

Book writer Doug Wright, whose Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife was also developed by the La Jolla Playhouse, has whittled the documentary's two dozen contestants down to ten. A fellow Texan, he's drawn them with dialogue that plays true to the locale. He magnanimously doesn't play favorites — letting us choose whom to root for - so treats ten characters with equal focus.

Wright also supplies several subplots that need frequent attention. Mike promises his girlfriend-on-the-side (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) he'll help her win the contest. Even the cheaters get Wright's admirable empathy. Mike needs the competition to bring in paying customers or the dealership will close. The downside to Wright's laundry list of demanding tasks is he doesn't give the characters much room to develop beyond type. For instance, Wright draws Mike as essentially weak and not all that bright, which deprives the show of a compelling antagonist.

The contest, in and of itself or as a metaphor for the plight of the 99%, is rarely questioned by the creators or competitors. Instead the countervailing force is a more general sense of economic distress. Unacknowledged in most musicals, its centrality to Hands on a Hardbody makes the show welcome, compelling, and potentially necessary.

In the second act, no-nonsense Janie Curtis (a strong Dale Soules) discovers Mike's special treatment of Heather. The fury in her number “It's a Fix” taps into larger currents of fairness that ripple through the theater, but the show doesn't build on it. Her fellow competitors don't turn on the contest's organizers or each other. Their behavior, their hopes, and the show's effect stay largely respectable and constrained. A deflating sense of sameness sets in.

The show could take a few more tips from its musical forebearer A Chorus Line. The performers audition in real time without a break, so the stakes are immediate and heightened. At two acts running over two and a half hours, Hardbody's endurance test spreads past the footlights.

A Chorus Line's structure is cannily devised. Just as dread sets in that each of the characters is going to have their moment one by one down the line, pairs and trios of characters start combining. Then all blend in that fifteen minute ode to adolescence, “Hello Twelve. . ..” so that all bets are off on how things will unfold as they await who'll be chosen.

No slouch, Wright devises some surprises of his own. One of the first songs presents a contestant only to stop abruptly as his farewell. When fetching young Kelli (the appropriately enchanting Allison Case) describes in “I'm Gone” how she'll use the truck to hightail it out of Laredo, Chris (Jay Armstrong Johnson) hitches onto her dream and plans to join her if either wins.

Still, the first act plays mostly as a series of introductions. The second act develops into a series of ballad-driven goodbyes without ratcheting up significant suspense. The lessons learned by the last remaining competitors followed by the finale's summation, “Keep Your Hands on It” seem more pro forma than fully earned.

Hardbody doesn't need an overhaul. The dexterous ensemble covering a wide range of ages and ethnicities is a keeper. Keith Carradine leads with taciturn charm as loner JD who has health problems and even bigger trouble opening up to his wife Virginia (a redoubtable Mary Gordon Murray). I admit to rooting most for Jon Rua's earnest Jesus Pena. His “Born in Laredo” is equal parts resolute and wrenching.

The direction by Neil Pepe, who specializes in gritty contemporary plays, is clean and effective. His thrilling staging of one character's descent into delirium exemplifies the mix of theatricality and emotional truth the production aims for and occasionally achieves. The design by the unbeatable Christine Jones (set and tricked-out truck), Kevin Adams (lighting), and Susan Hilferty (costumes) is spare and spot-on.

Hands on a Hardbody has a rare chance to serve as both a thrill ride and a vehicle for change. A thorough tune-up in preparation for the move to Broadway would help the production click on all cylinders. The writers just need to put the theatrical pedal to the metal.

Hands on a Hardbody
Book by Doug Wright
Lyrics by Amanda Green, Music by Trey Anastasio
Musical staging by Benjamin Millepied
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Keith Carradine (JD Drew), Allison Case (Kelli Mangrum), Hunter Foster (Benny Perkins), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Greg Wilhote), David Larsen (Chris Alvaro), Jacob Ming Trent ( Ronald McGowan), Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone (Heather Stovall ), Mary Gordon Murray (Virginia Drew), Jim Newman (Mike Ferris), Connie Ray (Cindy Barnes), Keala Settle (Norma Valverde), Dale Soules (Janis Curtis), Scott Wakefield (Frank Nugent), William Youmans (Don Curtis/ Dr Stokes)
Music Direction: Zachary Dietz
Scenic Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Running Time: Two hours, twenty minutes plus intermission
Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla, California 92037 (858) 550-1010
From April 27 – June 17, 2012
Reviewed by Jon Magaril based on May 28, 2012 matinee performance

Song List
It's a Human Drama Thing
Alone with Me
Master Benny's Winning Strategies
A Little Somethin' Somethin'
If I Had a Truck
My Problem Right There
Burn That Bridge
I'm Gone
Joy of the Lord
Hunt with the Big Dogs
Hands on a Hardbody
Born in Laredo
It's a Fix
Used to Be
God Answered My Prayers
The Tryers
Joy of the Lord (Reprise)
Keep Your Hands on It
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