Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 21, 2013
Hands on a Hardbody Book by Doug Wright. Lyrics by Amanda Green. Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green. Based on a film by S.R. Bindler. Directed by Neil Pepe. Music staging by Sergio Trujillo. Musical direction and vocal arrangements by Carmel Dean. Scenic design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Orchestrations by Trey Anastasio, Don Hart. Cast: Keith Carradine, Allison Case, Hunter Foster, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jacob Ming-Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Keala Settle, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, William Youmans.
What do you know: The creative team stunned me by failing on each and every one of these counts — and, sadly, more as well.
In the interests of fairness, I will credit book writer Doug Wright, composer-lyricist Amanda Green, and composer Trey Anastasio (of the rock band Phish) with attempting something unusual. Basing a musical on the 1997 S.R. Bindler documentary of the same name, a property that doesn't invite the trappings, crutches, or intimate familiarity with the source material on which most current film-to-stage adaptations depend, was gutsy. As, for that matter, was their attempt to tell a story about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation that could, in the right light, stand as a microcosm of America in our current, perpetually financially distressed state.
Unfortunately, laudable intentions do not a good musical equal, especially when they're surrounded by nothing else remotely workable — to say nothing of sensible. Neither the writers nor their director, Neil Pepe, have solved (or, as far as I can tell, even addressed) the essential problems with their experimental premise. And, in many cases, they've only exacerbated them, transforming a potentially unique concept into just another catatonia-inducing show. That this is the show's second major mounting (it premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse last summer) is the only astonishing thing about Hands on a Hardbody — most aborning New York Musical Theatre Festival shows seem more finished than this one.
The outlining begins at the worst possible place: With the contestants, all of whom are archetypes rather than people. We have an older man and an older woman: J.D. (Keith Carradine), trying to prove he can still provide for himself and his wife; and Janis, an aging truck-driver type who lives life (with her husband) on her own terms. Benny (Hunter Foster) is a bearded, mullet-sporting bigot who won the truck last time and wants another shot at glory. Chris (David Larsen) is a marine who's recently returned from the Middle East with a searing case of PTSD.
Then there are two Hispanic-Americans: Jesus (Jon Rua), who's trying to make something of himself, and Norma (Keala Settle), a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical. Of course there's also the requisite African-American, the heavyset, food-loving Ronald (Jacob Ming-Trent), and the blonde bombshell Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone). Rounding out the roster are two additional ambitious youngsters, Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Kelli (Allison Case). Add in the scheming organizers, Mike (Jim Newman) and Cindy (Connie Ray), J.D.'s wife (Mary Gordon Murray) and Janis's husband (William Youmans), and a guitar-playing quasi narrator (Scott Wakefield) and all the bases are covered.
Once they are, however, Wright, Green, and Anastasio don't bother taking anyone to any unexpected places. Just as they checked all the equality boxes in sketching out characterizations, they do so in executing them. J.D. gets a song with his wife (Mary Gordon Murray) about the loving days behind them, Norma parades through a gospel number, Benny spews some choice intolerance and ignorance, and on and on. So bland and psychologically interchangeable are the various players, in fact, that when each one drops, neither they nor the audience seems to notice — there's not even a hint of the shock you may have once experienced at The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or, albeit in a much different context, the giddy delight that was a nightly event at the recent revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Even the shreds of more concrete plot — gasp, the dealership might shut down! Double gasp, the contest might be fixed — are too dull to register in the theater, let alone bother recounting here. And so apparently disinterested are the writers in the story they're telling that not only do they give everyone but the winner a "this is what I did afterward" musical moment, they also forsake the catharsis of showing said winner driving the truck in favor of a finale that finds everyone motionless onstage, singing maudlin lyrics like "So if you want something / Keep your hands on it / And if you love someone / Keep your hands on them / If you lose everything / Don't let go."
All musicals, even those that want to challenge the established form, need a firm foundation from which songs and dances can believably spring. Generic characters lacking vibrant wants and needs, like those Wright and Green have provided nearly a dozen of, cannot provide that. And no actors, even as generally gifted as those here, can compensate for such conspicuously absent fundamentals. Carradine and Murray come closest to convincing, and also establish the nearest functional equivalent to a real relationship onstage; their duet, "Alone With Me," is almost recognizably tender. The other performers, saddled with creaky dialogue and mechanical lyrics set to violently diffuse and completely forgettable country-western pop (flairlessly orchestrated by Anastasio and Don Hart), have no chance.
Pepe's staging is hopelessly lethargic and one-note, finding no levels of pacing or feeling. The desert-cinderblock set (by Christine Jones) is likewise unpleasant to look at, and it's unremarkably lit by Kevin Adams. The only thing that generates even momentary sparks is the truck itself, a red Nissan that is allowed to be shiny and distinctive in a way nothing else onstage is. Rigged in such a way that it can be moved or swiveled by the actors with a gentle push or tug, and finding its fullest expression in that gospel number, when Sergio Trujillo's otherwise uninspired choreography temporarily transforms it into a two-ton tambourine, it becomes more than just the focus of the characters' ambitions, but also a rare instance of dynamism in a show that couldn't care less about such things.
When you find yourself longing for a set piece like this to be a show's primary center of attention, something is very wrong. One would hope that the creators of any musical would, above all else, want their show to move, even if most of its characters cannot. Alas, Wright, Green, Anastasio, and Pepe have not even mustered enough enthusiasm to shift Hands on a Hardbody out of park.