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Review Roundup: HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Featuring Hunter Foster, Allison Case and More, at La Jolla Playhouse

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When an auto dealership in Longview, TX launches an endurance contest, ten economically-strapped strangers embark on a journey that puts their hearts, minds and bodies to the test. The contestant who keeps at least one hand on a brand-new hardbody truck the longest gets to drive it off the lot. What initially seems like a mere publicity stunt soon becomes a soul-baring battle of wills. Only one can win, but for all involved, the truck holds the key to their own private American dream.

La Jolla Playhouse's premiere of Hands on a Hardbody opened May 12 and runs through June 17, 2012 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre. The commissioned musical has a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Creditors), lyrics by Amanda Green (High Fidelity), music by Trey Anastasio (lead singer of the popular band Phish) and Amanda Green, with direction by Neil Pepe (Speed-the-Plow) and musical staging by Benjamin Millepied (BLACK SWAN). Find out what the critics thought of the world premiere production below!

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times: It's not entirely clear that the musical needs roughly 21/2 hours to tell a real-life tale the film covered in just over 90 minutes...But there's a refreshing emotional simplicity to this story that's been genially adapted to the stage by Doug Wright (Pulitzer Prize-winningauthor of "I Am My Own Wife" and book writer for the musical "Grey Gardens"). And the score by Trey Anastasio (founding member of the band Phish) and Amanda Green (lyricist for the short-lived Broadway musical"High Fidelity" and co-lyricist for the strained "Bring It On: The Musical") blends rock, gospel, folk and country music, all of which is immediately accessible without sounding canned.

Bob Verini, Variety: The fresh premise of "Hands on a Hardbody" -- the last of 10 Texans to break contact with a Nissan pickup truck drives it away -- doesn't disguise a debt to other tuners. Competitors singing nostalgically about their backstories are right out of "A Chorus Line," with "Working" populist sentiments musically conveyed through "Best Little Whorehouse" country rock. Still, the La Jolla Playhouse attraction feels pretty special in its unique flinty integrity and wholesome earnestness. After a tune-up, this vehicle could be in it for the long haul.

James Hebert, U-T San Diego: One element that feels a little naggingly underdeveloped is the competition's sense of carnival. There are vague mentions of spectators, but the event can feel as if it's happening in a vacuum. Perhaps there's a way to get the band into the visual mix (they're barely visible as it is) and tie the quirky import of the contest more into the community the characters keep talking about. Still, “Hardbody” comes off as a wholly original, witty and worthy exploration of intertwined themes from economic hardship to racial friction to war and its costs, to the passing of small-town America. As the show says, a truck is like a hat to a Texan. A tip of the ten-gallon to this one.

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