Theater Review - Hands on a Hardbody (NY)

“Hands on a Hard Body” sounds like a strip show! It is not and I loved it! Although I am not a huge fan of country-type music and/or red trucks, this very American musical, based on a 1990's documentary made in Longview, Texas,  proves once again that if written and directed well, and acted authentically, any subject can be a success on stage. Doug Wright's Book is well-constructed; Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green's  Music score, a meld of gospel, blues, and southern rock, is warm and well-paced, and Amanda Green's Lyrics tell the stories oh so well.  There are many good songs, but the one that struck me was “Used to Be.”  It talks about the town and how it has been taken over by chain stores, which are named, and has lost its character. 


The stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is dominated by a cherry red truck that seems to move in all different directions and tempos. It is the centerpiece of a competition sponsored by a car agency.  Contestants place their hands on this new shiny Nissan pick-up truck and the one still standing and holding on in the heat after any number of days and nights, wins the truck. Every hour fifteen minute breaks are allowed. 


Now that's the premise, but it is much more than that. We get to meet and find out why a group of disparate people are all prepared to suffer for what they think they desperately need.  Neil Pepe is the director of this very interesting cast, who push and pull the truck, while singing and moving sometimes at warp speed. Sergio Trujillois listed for the unusual Musical Staging and Choreography; Carmel Dean for Musical Direction and Vocal Arrangements. Set by Christine Jones, lit by Kevin Adams.          


And so to the actors: Fifteen stalwart actors and actresses, competitors, agency owners, and a radio announcer, all well-costumed by Susan Hilferty, are exceptional. Keith Carradine is superb.  He is so natural as JD Drew  who's recuperating from a serious accident to his leg.  He is, at first, annoyed with his caring wife, Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray), for hovering around him with meds and ice packs. Their middle-aged relationship is the most effective. Nervous and unsure, JD asks for Benny's help. This former winner is played by Hunter Foster, who always gives a reliable performance. Benny's son killed himself after the war, and he can't get over the tragedy. The two agree to partner up for support.


Meanwhile, Jacob Ming-Trent as Ronald and Keala Settle as religious Norma impress with their rich deep voices, as does charming red-head Allison Case as Kelli, who works for UPS; she falls for Jay Armstrong Johnson's Greg, who wants to travel and see the world. He loses because of his loyalty and love for her. David Larsen is touching as the veteran, Chris. Jon Rua as Jesus Pena, blows us away with his rendition of “Born in Laredo,”  a tale of an American who is always taken for Mexican, while blond Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as sexy Heather cheats to win with fast-talking Mike, manager of the franchise, a pleasant Jim Newman. He has to make money;  his wife wants Tuscan marble in their new kitchen. His assistant, Cindy, is tall and slim Connie Ray, who wears an array of attractive suits. There is Dale Soules as Janis, married to Don (William Youmans); her strong opinions do her in. Scott Wakefield—the radio guy –is played by Frank Nugent.  


“Hands on a Hard Body” is a really a happy surprise at the Brook Atkinson Theatre on Broadway.

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