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Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Hands on a Hardbody
La Jolla Playhouse

Also see Bill's review of Master Harold ... and the boys

Hands on a Hardbody
David Larsen and Cast
Reality television has staked a theatrical beachhead in the form of the musical Hands on a Hardbody, now in a world premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse. Whether this populist invasion is actually new and whether it spells the end of the world as we know it depends entirely on your point of view, however.

Based on S. R. Bindler and Kevin Morris' documentary film, Hands on a Hardbody tells the story of ten contestants who hope to win the currency of the realm in East Texas: a shiny new Nissan pick-up truck. Floyd King Nissan is sponsoring the contest in hopes of repeating a sales bonanza that occurred two years earlier when the dealership sponsored a similar contest.

Competing to win the prize by standing continuously with hands touching the truck's body is a cross-section of townspeople headed by the previous champion, Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster). Supervising the competition are the dealership's sales manager (Jim Newman) and public relations person (Connie Ray), both of whom have much riding on its success.

Now, crafting a musical out of a situation where everyone in the large cast has a story that needs to be told is no mean feat. This sort of storytelling worked magnificently for A Chorus Line, but that show had the advantage of being based on truth-telling interviews with Broadway dancers whose stories could be precisely choreographed. Here, the central figure is really the truck (cleverly designed by Christine Jones to be sturdy but to be able to move and be turned), and cast members have to do their theatrical work while touching it (credit Benjamin Millepied for devising clever ways of working around this built-in limitation).

Doug Wright's book is a collection of recession-era resentments and complaints but also aspirations and dreams. The stories might go down well with members of the Tea Party, and who knows, the show might become known as the first Tea Party musical. Mr. Wright should be complimented, however, for never making fun of his characters. Whether they entered because Jesus told them to do so, because they are ashamed of driving a Volkswagen Beetle, or because they want to attend veterinary school with the proceeds, Mr. Wright provides enough breathing space for connecting with the characters on their own terms. He does, however, get stuck with what to do with characters who drop out of the competition, and the reasons he invents for bringing some of them back in service of later songs are pretty lame ones.

Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green's mix of country rock, and folk music is the show's highlight. Mr. Anastasio, the lead singer of the band Phish, has a particular knack for inventing melody that might go well with a beer, and the easy way the songs go down keep the lengthy (two hours and fifty minutes) performance from flagging, mostly. Ms. Green's lyrics don't always fare as well, but they get the job done without too much embarrassment and occasionally there's a clever turn of phrase.

The cast, for the most part, sings well. Standouts are Jon Rua as the hopeful veterinary student (Mr. Rua also gets the best song, "Born in Laredo," an object lesson in ethnic profiling), David Larsen as a returned soldier with PTSD, and the gospel stylings of Jacob Ming Trent and Keala Settle.

The two best-known performers get a bit of a raw deal, though. Mr. Foster is saddled with playing a schemer who uses both physical and psychological ploys to plot his second victory. His adopted sidekick is played by Keith Carradine, who, as the oldest of the contestants, doesn't get to use any of the boyish charm that endeared him to audiences in The Will Rogers Follies or the Robert Altman film Nashville. Every so often his "I'm Easy" tonal quality comes through, but mostly that quality is gone now. Mr. Carradine's character is also the least well developed and one of the least sympathetic. As a performer, though, Mr. Carradine makes what he can of the little he is given.

With no one being voted off the island and a minimal amount of scheming and mid-contest rule changes, perhaps my comparison of Hands on a Hardbody to reality television is a little unfair. Even so, the show seems aimed at attracting audience members who do not think of themselves as musical theatre fans. How well such audiences will take to this sort of entertainment is unclear, but probably selling beer to enjoy during the performance would be a good idea.

Through June 17, 2012, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037. Tickets ($51-$85) available by calling the box office at (858) 550-1010; or by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org/.

La Jolla Playhouse presents Hands on a Hardbody, a world-premiere commissioned musical, book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, and music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green. Directed by Neil Pepe, with musical staging by Benjamin Millepied, scenic design by Christine Jones, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, and dramaturgy by Shirley Fishman.

The cast includes: Keith Carradine as JD Drew, Allison Case as Kelli Mangrum, Hunter Foster as Benny Perkins, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Greg Wilhote, David Larsen as Chris Alvaro, Jacob Ming Trent as Ronald McGowan, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as Heather Stovall, Mary Gordon Murray as Virginia Drew, Jim Newman as Mike Ferris, Connie Ray as Cindy Barnes, Jon Rua as Jesus Pena, Keala Settle as Norma Valverde, Dale Soules as Janis Curtis, Scott Wakefield as Frank Nugent, William Youmans as Don Curtis/Dr. Stokes.


Photo: Kevin Berne

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie



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