Friday, May 18, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Hands on a Hardbody" at La Jolla Playhouse

“Hardbody” Kicks Up Its Wheels:
Ten Texas desperados go neck-and-neck (and hand-to-hand) in La Jolla Playhouse’s exuberant musical ode to hope amid hard times

By Donnie Matsuda

La Jolla Playhouse may have finally hit the high road with its most recent vehicle-centric production of Hands on a Hardbody, a slick, splashy, and soul-stirring world premiere musical currently playing at the Mandell Weiss Theatre until June 17.

(L to R) Jay Armstrong Johnson, Keala Settle, Hunter Foster, and Keith Carradine in La Jolla Playhouse's world premiere musical "Hands on a Hardbody."  Photo by Kevin Berne.
While the Playhouse has certainly had its fair share of car-based creations (if this past season’s “The Car Plays: San Diego” and the VW-bug based “Little Miss Sunshine” are any indication), in this case, Hardbody is far more than just a musical about ten cash-strapped Texans vying for a brand new truck.  Sure, there is the peculiar premise of a grueling endurance contest – a shady sales gimmick at a struggling Longview, Texas Nissan dealership - in which these ten contestants must keep their hands firmly planted on the sleek blue truck until the last man standing wins it.  But, given the inordinate amount of time these ten devoted, working class strangers spend standing (and hand-ing) the truck, it’s no surprise that their heartfelt stories and quirky personalities start to pour forth as each participant pushes the limits of their own physical strength while doing everything they possibly can to keep their sanity from veering off the road.  

It doesn’t quite sound like the makings of a bold and brilliant musical, but in the more than capable hands of Phish singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio (his first stage musical) as musician/co-composer and Amanda Green (High Fidelity and Bring It On) as lyricist/co-composer, this rocking dynamic duo really get the wheels of this show turning.  The score they have carefully crafted features eighteen original songs that - in ways both ebullient and inspiring - bring out the best in classic American rock while also conveying the sad stories and gritty determination driving each of these competitors to the finish line.  

David Larsen (right) and the cast of "Hands on a Hardbody."  Photo by Kevin Berne.
The show gets off to a rousing start with a somewhat conventional opening number titled “Human Drama Kind of Thing.”  With a nice blend of rhythmic beats, country twang and good old fashioned rock, this compelling musical number gets things off the ground as we are introduced to each of the ten contestants (aging patriarch JD Drew played by Keith Carradine and previous winner Benny Perkins played by Hunter Foster look like early frontrunners), the rules of the contest, and the bang-up seven piece band lead by music director Zachary Dietz.  

That wave of powerful musical numbers continues with the beautifully haunting “Alone With Me” (sung with incredible pathos by Mary Gordon Murray as JD’s wife, Virginia), the gorgeously harmonized group anthem “If I Had This Truck,” the sexy and seductive “Burn That Bridge” (handled with sass by Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as Heather Stovall and Jim Newman as dealership manager Mike Ferris), and the tuneful ballad “I’m Gone” between budding young lovers Allison Case as Keilli Magnum and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Greg Wilhote.  But it is not until the end of Act One that we are treated to one of the most creative and awe-inspiring numbers in the entire show – the rollicking and rafter-raising “Joy of the Lord.”  In this spectacular spiritual, contestant Norma Valverde (played with incredible verve by powerhouse performer Keala Settle) leads the cast in a rousing gospel-infused number that is driven mostly by Settle’s breathtakingly belty voice, the soul-stirring harmonies of the supporting cast, and the percussive antics of the hardbody truck itself, which plays along to the beat of its own hood slamming, hatch-hitting, and horn honking.  It’s a glorious number and one in which all the elements of musical theatre – music, lyrics, staging, and choreography - align perfectly and to stunning effect.

While many of the songs in Act Two are less praiseworthy – the obligatory title song “Hands on a Hardbody” is a bit of a stretch and the forced quartet “The Tryers” seems contrived at best – there are still some winning tunes here.  Most notable is “Born in Laredo” the breakout number for contestant Jesus Peña played with youthful exuberance by Jon Rua.  In it, he wars against the culturally insensitive cluelessness of contest manager Cindy Barnes (an appropriately prudish Connie Ray) as he sings with passion about the American roots that ground his Mexican heritage. Also outstanding is the finale number “Keep Your Hands On It.”  It is the perfect way to sum up the sentiment of an intense and exhausting 144 hour-long competition and provides an apt and appropriate musical theatre metaphor in the show’s closing lyric, “If you love something…keep your hands on it.”

Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone and Jim Newman.  Photo by Kevin Berne.
Director Neil Pepe (longtime artistic director of the award-winning off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre Company) knows how to tell stories well and does a brilliant job of handling Doug Wright’s homespun book with lots of humor and heart. (Wright, by the way, is a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and Drama Desk Award winner who grew up less than 60 miles from Longview, TX, the blue-collar locale for Hardbody.)  And choreographer Benjamin Millepied does excellent work here, allowing the show’s cast to move and breathe organically while also showcasing some finely tuned jazz sequences around the perimeter of the truck.

As one might expect, the technical elements here are simple, but incredibly slick.  Christine Jones (designer of Broadway’s American Idiot and Spring Awakening) authentically recreates the Texas-based Nissan dealership with plenty of kitschy banners, office furniture, and a giant billboard that nicely frames the action center stage.  Add to that some incredibly vibrant hues designed by lighting designer Kevin Adams and some down-to-earth, rough and regular costumes by Susan Hilferty and you have the perfect setting for a good old fashioned Texas show-down.  But such a fierce competition would not be complete unless we can all feast our eyes on the prize, and the technical team does a bang-up job of crafting the show’s shiny blue centerpiece.  Billed as “the 16th character,” the sleek new pickup truck is something to behold as it spins on its casters and rolls around every corner of the stage, becoming a dynamic symbol for the Midwestern American Dream.   

Allison Case (seated on truck) and the cast of "Hands on a Hardbody."  Photo by Kevin Berne.
While the show runs a bit long at two and a half hours and could certainly use a few more tune ups for its next journey (no word yet on its Broadway ambitions, though this kind of show will unfortunately be a tough sell despite its many glimmers of brilliance and its mostly spot-on delivery), Hardbody still remains a remarkable piece of musical theatre.  It boasts real heartfelt American stories, features a cast of incredibly soulful characters, and packages it all together with a tuneful, toe-tapping score.

And who really wins the competition in the end doesn’t so much matter.  What matters is that Hardbody does the unthinkable – it’s the little truck that could take an unlikely concept and transform it into a real, rollicking, rock and roll musical.  And because of that, it’s already a winner.

Things to know before you go: Hands on a Hardbody plays at the Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse through June 17, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Tuesdays/Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays/Fridays/Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm and Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2pm.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit

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