When first presented with the idea of HANDS ON A HARDBODY, its premise doesn’t seem to have the hook that one would expect from a musical. Take a group of strangers, have them in an endurance contest where they can’t move and set it in an auto dealership. Yet this show, commissioned developed and now making its world premier at the La Jolla Playhouse, is a musical that can go the distance.
Based on a 1997 documentary, the show focuses on a group of Texans that are competing in a contest to win a truck. The rules of the contest are simple, keep one hand on the vehicle at all times and the last person standing wins the vehicle. Initially the premise doesn’t seem like it could make for the most interesting musical but it is both entertaining and touching as it explores what people are willing to do in order to get through the hard times.
The cast of contestants is a cross section of a small town and could be set anywhere in America. This group hails from a small town in Texas and includes an arrogant past winner, a woman of faith, the old timer trying to prove he’s not done yet, a military veteran, a son of immigrants, two young kids with dreams beyond this small town, an ex-cheerleader, a mother of six and an unemployed man. Despite their differences or maybe because of them this group of stranger’s share what winning this truck would mean for them. This contest is more than asking for a handout, this is an endurance contest for a better life. This truck is more than a truck; rather a symbol of whatever the characters need at that moment: financial security, reliable transportation, escape from a small town or a way to reclaim a sense of pride.
Keith Carradine portrays J.D., an oil man forced into early retirement. He brings humor in his commentary of the past and future, regarding both himself and the town. His character is the only one to comment on the irony of what they are doing. “Funny, ain’t it,” he says. “American dream, a Japanese car.” Carradine has a nice strong voice and his songs are winning in their directness and simplicity. While stoic, he is willing to play the game as taught to him by a former winner, Benny Perkins, played by Hunter Foster.
Foster is good a Benny considering the writers have left his character a bit less defined than the others. Foster juggles the facets of this character which include being simultaneously arrogant, a scoundrel, randomly helpful and a sympathetic figure. While his performance is good, some editing on his character may help both the show and the audience.
There are some standout musical numbers but one that brings down the house is “Joy to the Lord” by the fabulous Keala Settle. Settle has a big voice and a great gospel technique which makes her song a showstopper. Jon Rua plays Jesus, the son of two immigrants and his “Born in Laredo” is an emotional song defending his citizenship and proving he is as worthy as anyone else in the contest. David Larsen portrays a man returning from war and trying to find his place in this new world. Both his songs “Stronger” and “The Tryers” are poignant and timely.
The music is catchy and entertaining and more importantly, fits the show and the area it portrays. It is a musical theater mix of country, gospel, rock, and blues that blend together well without sounding forced. Their expression of their wants, needs, hopes and dreams is logically expressed through the type of music that would be most popular in their town.
The set is dominated by the midnight blue Nissan truck (set in center stage) that is the object of everyone’s affections. Taken apart by the theatre and rebuilt so that it shed 2,8000 pounds, it is more than just a truck. It is moved around, danced on, pulled, and shoved, spun around and played as a percussion instrument as needed during different numbers. It is a main component of the staging, as it should be since the characters aren’t supposed to let go of it. Its versatility allows the rest of the set to remain minimal and supported by excellent lighting.