Hands on a Hardbody

If the thought of standing with at least one hand on a motor vehicle in the Texas heat for hours – nay, days – on end does not entice you, then rest assured that while the musical currently in residence at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre may take its time, it is no slog.  Hands on a Hardbody is a novel experience: A Broadway musical exploring ten economically struggling Southerners, each seeking some form of redemption by means of a grueling competition to win a Nissan pick-up truck.  If the show never really navigates the darkness in its characters’ lives, nonetheless it provides contemplative pleasures.

Inspired by the documentary film of the same name, Hands on a Hardbody feels genuinely American, from its Texas setting to the country-fried flavor of Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green’s music to the deep itch to own a brand-new car – more to the point, a truck.  The economic distress of both contestants and car dealership have an authentic ring as well.  The characters include an Iraq was veteran, a deeply Christian woman, a pretty woman seeking to use her natural gifts to maximum advantage, a striving Latino man who receives the brunt of the unfortunate racism that’s also part of the American fabric, and a former winner trying to win again (and what’s more American than that?).  As they stand around the truck, in front of the bleached-out billboard with no message on it that is the greatest part of Christine Jones’s excellent, elegant set, we know where we are, and it’s not always pretty.

The challenge with any Broadway production is finding the balance point between honesty and entertainment; Hands on a Hardbody leans a little too much in the latter direction.  There’s an effort at seriousness of purpose in exploring the Marine’s situation; unfortunately, it’s underlined hamfistedly by Sergio Trujillo’s staging for the ensemble (most of Trujillo’s work in the show is beautiful, finding every variation of movement on and around the truck there can be).  Of the two long-standing marriages that are examined, the more successful is the one that’s brighter, featuring the redoubtable Dale Soules and William Youmans as a pair who find strength in their partnership, whereas Keith Carradine and Mary Gordon Murray play the most humorless couple south of the Mason-Dixon Line, singing ballads that evaporate as soon as they’ve been sung.  But there is terrific material as well.  Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson play young people who meet and fall for each other (and for each other’s dreams) in a wonderful number called “I’m Gone.”  Jon Rua delivers a great rendition of “Born in Laredo.”  And when Keala Settle, playing a woman who is placing her faith in Jesus to quite a test, laughs uproariously and raises her mighty voice to the rafters, it’s a great reminder of the power music has to lift downtrodden spirits.  (Settle is a serious talent, and the show’s great find; she’s funny, warm, strong, scared, all things she needs to be and then some.)  If Hunter Foster, as the former winner who is competing again, is entirely miscast, and Connie Ray’s comic work as a dealership employee is strained (largely a defect in Doug Wright’s book), the rest of the cast is engaging and entertaining, doing strong work as actors, singers, and movers.

Kevin Adams’s lighting is as layered and multitextured as it needs to be.  Of Susan Hilferty’s costume design, one could wish that more of the clothes felt more lived in rather than looking new.  The orchestrations, by Anastasio and Don Hart, are flavorful and appealing.  The musical they’re in support of is a mixed bag, but offers many strong moments and an intriguing milieu.