Review: 'Hands on a Hardbody' tuneful, sweet ode

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Associated Press

Posted on March 21, 2013 at 8:04 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 21 at 8:04 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — If sales of Nissan pickup trucks tick up in the next few months, there may be an unlikely source: a Broadway musical.

"Hands on a Hardbody," a seemingly far-fetched stage show based on a documentary that features songs co-written by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, stars a modified Aztec red Nissan. By the end of the show, you'll swear that truck can dance.

You might, too. Anastasio and Broadway veteran Amanda Green have written a soundtrack of mostly fine songs in a nice mix of styles — blues, gospel, country and honky-tonk — that will fire you right up.

Playwright Doug Wright has had some fun himself, the cast is committed and realistic, and the whole thing is a pleasing, tuneful, heart-filled ode to small towns and American dreams.

The musical that opened Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, following a stop at the La Jolla Playhouse, is based on S.R. Binder's 1997 documentary about an endurance contest at an east Texas car dealership that offered a free pickup to whoever could keep a hand on it the longest.

The creative team behind the musical has taken some liberties with the story but has been faithful about the vehicle — it's an engine-less Nissan truck frame.

Weighing 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms), the truck rests on 16 casters and the 10 actors who play contestants whip the thing around using only elbow grease. The reluctance to use any Broadway trickery — yes, that's you, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" — is commendable, keeping the story and actors true to their gritty roots.

Director Neil Pepe and Sergio Trujillo, who did musical staging, get full credit for making this show move delightfully despite the subject matter being an exhausting test of endurance — the show's winner stood for 91 hours — and a hunk of metal in the middle of the stage.

How do they do it? Trujillo has his actors duck under each other's arms, jump and dance on the spinning truck, make it the object of a tug-of-war and even bring the house down in a "Stomp"-like song in which the actors knock out a beat on the Nissan itself, turning it into a big drum.

The 15-character cast includes the nervous owners of the truck dealership and 10 down-on-their-luck guys and gals for whom the $22,000 truck represents a new chance. Or, as the somewhat clumsy first number argues, "It's more than a contest/It's more than dumb luck/It's more than extra cash/It is much more than a truck!"

One contestant is a devout Latina, another a muscled war veteran and a third is a good ol' boy whose wife has come along for support. There's a pretty brunette and a flirtatious blonde. There's also a "tough old bird with sun-burnished skin and missing teeth," as the script suggests. By the end, you care about all them.

Wright, who was born 120 miles (193 kilometers) from the site of the actual Texas contest in Longview, has written colorful, recognizable characters but finds their core decency. He also slips in some funny pop culture references to "Highlander" and "Friday Night Lights."

Anastasio and Green thankfully haven't given all 10 their own song to sing about their history and miseries. What they've done is pen 16 tunes that are nicely nestled in the story, which is, by definition, a sort of thriller.

The ostensible hero is played with hangdog appeal by Keith Carradine, but some of the other outstanding performances are by Keala Settle, who plays a woman whose infectious laugh in one scene lifts the show and who belts out "The Joy of the Lord" with a divine talent.

There's also John Rua, playing a misunderstood Mexican-American who sings "Born in Laredo," and Jacob Ming-Trent as a cocky but sweet guy whose "My Problem Right Here" is soulfully groovy. Even the evil guy in the bunch — Hunter Foster, taking a walk on the racist, slimy side — gets to strut with "Hunt With the Big Dog."

Fans of Phish will hear the familiar twang and blues from their beloved jam band, but they'll also get a surprisingly good smattering of gospel, soul and Broadway belting.

Green, also in charge of lyrics, has some that stick — "You're fighting for your breath/Right from the moment of your birth!" — and some that don't — "Like the great Ali did/When he changed his name from Cassius/Everybody's hoping to rise/Once more from the ashes!"

When Anastasio and Green are cooking, you get the standouts "Used to Be," a paean to mom-and-pop America, the sexy "Burn That Bridge" and the rousing ensemble number "If I Had This Truck." But even when they don't — the thin "I'm Gone" — it's better than a lot of songs in other theaters right now.

Set designer Christine Jones has got dreary used-car lot down, including the sad plastic fringe. The highlight of her set is that big steel pickup, with its heft and bulk. It never looks adorable, especially with Kevin Adams' appropriately harsh summer Texas lighting.

The funny thing? Nissan hasn't advertised in the show's Playbill. Just Lincoln and Lexus.

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Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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