|Photo credit: Chad Batka|
Hands on a Hardbody, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is based on a 1997 documentary about an endurance competition at a Nissan dealership in Plainview, Texas. The stakes may not seem high, but for the contestants, the truck could mean anything from getting out of the town to supporting a family. Doug Wright's book does a good job of giving us glimpses into the lives of these people, but too much time is spent with the car dealers, who are counting on the publicity to increase sales. It takes away from the momentum of the contest.
The music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green is not very memorable (what does it say that while trying to remember songs to write this review, I keep singing, "I really need this truck. Please God I need this truck. I've got to get this truck"?) and the lyrics by Green are often pedestrian. But then there are moments of brilliance, as in the highlight of the show, a number called "Joy of the Lord" in which the cast turns the truck into an instrument (think "Trashing The Camp" in Tarzan). Sergio Trujillo's choreography is inventive in the way contestants are able to move while keeping their hands on the truck, though I could have done without the dream-like moments when contestants take their hands off the truck. It seems like cheating.
The show also benefits from a first-rate cast. Jay Armstrong Johnson (Greg Wilhote), who I've been singing the praises of for years, and Allison Case (Kelli Mangrum) inject some welcome youthful energy and have sweet chemistry in their duet "I'm Gone." Hunter Foster balances confidence and pain as returning champion Benny Perkins. Keith Carradine gives an understated performance as the oldest contestant, JD Drew. And Keala Settle is a welcome discovery as Norma Valverde, whose laughter in one scene infects the characters and the audience. If only that elation wasn't so fleeting.