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Hands on a Hardbody


Ghostlight Records

It's a competition and people keep getting eliminated. We find out about them along the way: what makes these Texans tick, what ticks them off, what drives them to want to drive off with the free truck that is the prize. Be the last one standing of those who put their Hands on a Hardbody truck and win. It might remind musical theatre fans of competing dancers in memorable musicals: the sleep-deprived endurance of marathon dancers in Steel Pier or those vying to pass a Broadway audition to high-step onto A Chorus Line. As we get to know the characters, will we care about them and will their specific lives and goals touch a chord in our own desires to make the longing and woes universal? Obviously, people did for the long-running A Chorus line, but Hands on a Hardbody closed about a month after it opened on Broadway this year, following a run at California's La Jolla Playhouse, the theatre organization having commissioned the piece. Having listened to the characters as they come across via an audio recording, I'll subscribe to theory that: Yes, indeed, the heart of the matter is that this group doesn't inspire sufficient heart-touching, heart-clutching or heartbreaking reactions.

Where those dancers pleaded, "I really need this job/ Please, God, I need this job/ I've got to get this job," the Texans open their opening number with the words "O Lord," and a few lines later sing, "Jesus, I just got to win/ This truck/ This truck/ This truck, this truck, this truck!" On many a track the word "truck" is trotted out, without a doubt, but sometimes without rhymes. In what Musical Theatre 101 calls "the 'I want' song" early on revealing main characters' main motivations, we get the flatly stated desire quoted above and the second number called "If I Had This Truck." Therein, it's rhymed with "a drop of good luck" and what life is like in Texas if you are truckless: "You're stuck." Then, we get away from just the current situation (sometimes) as we start to meet the competitors in their claustrophobic crunch. Appropriately, there's a down-home country twang and toughness.

Trey Anastasio (from the rock group Phish, and playing guitar here in the band) is co-credited with the music with Amanda Green, who also supplied the lyrics. On a couple of numbers which I find less interesting musically, I note that he did the music alone. A few numbers are by Miss Green alone, and I find myself gravitating to them. They are works of songsmithing economy, with a touch of class and melodies that have a plaintive, gentler quality. They also, refreshingly, seem less tied to the tired plot and suggest broader ideas. It's the bonus track I like most: her "The Tryers," cut from the score ("Here's to the tryers/ Those brave do-or-die-rs/ With no safety net/ Walking on them high wires ..." honoring their willingness because, as the verse concludes, "Most people never try at all." Interestingly, it also gives Hunter Foster his most appealing vocal moments, allowing for his warmer tones to come through, as his character is dour, gruff, or on a tirade elsewhere, barking out his words. A splendid performer, he is not showcased well enough here to be the likeable and charming presence he can be. His sullen anger, like many of the emotions and personae jumping from the disc, feels kind of one-note, crying out for more variety. Or maybe I was just hoping for more for variety and shaping and arcs on too many numbers.

The other all-Green pieces feature Keith Carradine, whose warm humanity which comes through in his singing is a major plus (so distinctively endearing so long ago, too, as the title character in the musical The Will Rogers Follies). He sings with convincing longing for happier times of yore (in his marriage and in the pre-"mall-ification" of businesses and ubiquitous chain stores.

This is one of those cast albums that I had to keep returning to after putting aside. My mind would wander and my ears sometimes felt assaulted by the brashness and either the extreme glee or extreme gloom. Or just broad and brash, like the disappointingly crass, leering double entendres in the title song. Once I kind of "got it," and digested the limited agenda and functions, I liked it more. Gospel numbers are lively and zingy, if reminiscent of too many sound-alike exultations. The bounciness of "If She Don't Sleep" is indeed catchy and fun in a more than just silly way. The couple's devoted ultra-togetherness/commiserating policy is charming. And, though telegraphed to a faretheewell, the sum-up message making the hands-on contest a metaphor is effective and life-affirming ("Keep Your Hands on It"). For vulnerability and rawness, there's a war veteran's tortured memories well painted by the lyricist and actor-singer David Larson, clinging to the theory that scary stuff makes us "Stronger." Things sometimes feel too exaggerated or cartoonish in other numbers, and the rants and raves begin to wear thin as the plot thins.

This ensemble show's cast album has its energizing and pensive moments. Between the wailing and the caterwauling, it can often be enjoyable on its own terms. There's something to be said for jauntiness and characters in catharsis.

- Rob Lester

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