BWW CD Reviews: HANDS ON A HARDBODY Cast Recording Is Mesmerizingly Eclectic
The musical was well received by critics and audiences alike in California, generating buzz for it transfer to Broadway. The entire La Jolla cast reunited for the New York premiere of the show, which started previews on February 23, 2013 and officially opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on March 21, 2013. Sadly, the well-reviewed small show had a hard time finding an audience and had its final Broadway bow on Saturday, April 13. However, Ghostlight Records excited fans and those of us who were interested in the project when that announced they'd be recording an Original Broadway Cast Recording on that same fateful Saturday in April.
Set in modern day Longview, Texas, which is about 128 miles East of Dallas on Interstate 20, the musical introduces audiences to 10 unforgettable contestants and other denizens of the small Texas town. Over the course of a few grueling days, the contestants compete in a contest of endurance in the hopes of winning a brand new Nissan Hardbody truck. The rules are simple, the last person to remain standing with his or her hand on the truck wins. Throughout the competition, each contestant gets the chance to win over the heart of listeners of the album with catchy, enlivening tunes and fresh, smart lyrics. Most importantly, the characters in the show are not far-fetched caricatures. They are our blue-collar neighbors, friends, and family members. The songs created by Trey Anastasio of Phish and Amanda Green emphasize the realistic aspects of these rural dwellers who brave exposure and exhaustion in an attempt to win a new lease on life with a brand new Hardbody truck. After all, as Ronald sings, "Car don't make money/ Truck - make money."
The fascinatingly diverse score by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green perfectly embraces the aural landscape of small-town Texas. Songs on the disc vary in musical styles from lively Southern gospel to contemporary Country/Western. It also incorporates the riffs of radio-friendly soft rock as well. While none of the instantly accessible tuneful songs sound like what we are accustomed to hearing on an Original Broadway Cast Recording, there is simply no denying that each song is both delightful and invigorating. Listening to the recording, it became instantly obvious that something magnificent and even magical happened every time this cast took the stage. This score, these lyrics, and this cast are truly filled with a splendid heart that radiates pure joy and charisma.
Initially, I was delighted to discover that the characters that were inspired by my favorite people from the documentary also got my favorite musical moments, namely Norma's song "Joy of the Lord" and Janis' song "It's a Fix." But, other songs that instantly became favorites for me are the contestants' "If I Had This Truck," Don and Janis' "If She Don't Sleep," Chris' "Stronger," Jesus' "Born In Laredo," and Benny's "God Answered My Prayers." Additionally, the most affecting track is "Used To Be" which laments the loss of distinctive personality in American small towns. Echoing "How do you know when you've gotten home," the cast and lyrics discuss how the mom and pops have all vanished in the wake of large chain corporations like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Applebee's and how every town now looks the same.
It's hard to highlight any one performance over another because the musical is a true ensemble musical. In all sincerity, the entire cast does a brilliant job singing every song on the disc. They masterfully imbue their vocals with tangible grit and determination. They also tell their relatable stories with truthful sincerity, never once being coy or tongue-in-cheek. The cast, lyrics, and music all understand and are wonderfully sympathetic to the plight of these working class Americans who are striving for an opportunity to enrich their livelihoods. I absolutely love Keith Carradine's simplistically sweet vocals as JD Drew, Hunter Foster's enthusiastic Benny Perkins, Jon Rua's passionate and endearing voice as Jesus Peña, Keala Settle's spiritually soulful Norma Valverde, and Dale Curtis' brashly sardonic Janis Curtis.