Theater review by David Cote. Brooks Atkinson Theatre (see Broadway). Book by Doug Wright. Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green. Lyrics by Green. Dir. Neil Pepe. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
Based on the 1997 documentary about a Texas contest in which somebody wins a Nissan truck if he or she can keep touching it the longest (which—spoiler!—ends up being 91 hours), this new musical prompts the key question: Who is the audience? If you’re not going to give Hands on a Hardbody a modest, limited run at a nonprofit house and export it to the regional circuit, do you seriously expect tourists to shell out hundreds of bucks to see ten broke-ass Texans nearly kill themselves for a free car? People flock to Broadway for escapist thrills and flash—not sob stories and bad economic news they already know.
Before you condemn such remarks as reactionary status quo, let me add: Hardbody is not fresh enough to defend on the grounds of innovation. Ex-Phish rocker Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green’s ballad-heavy country & western score is far too repetitive, generic and poorly integrated into Doug Wright’s spunky but sketchy book. Cut a few of the 16 songs, trim the show to 90 minutes, and you might have a sweet, folksy chamber tuner about faith, hope and materialism in America. But it still wouldn’t fill a Broadway house.
That’s a shame, because there’s plenty of charm and talent here. Hunter Foster is amusingly cast as cocky, cunning past winner Benny Perkins. Willowy, yearning Allison Case has one of the best numbers, the breaking-away anthem “I’m Gone,” which she sings with Jay Armstrong Johnson. Keith Carradine adds leathery heft as a middle-aged ex–oil-rig worker. Sergio Trujillo’s bouncy choreography works endless variations on dancing around a truck (which glides hither and yon for variety), but both he and director Neil Pepe are hog-tied by the static, numbers-based premise. While not as dull as watching paint dry on a four-wheeler, Hardbody has too puny an engine to take anyone very far.—David Cote
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