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Review - Hands On A Hardbody: They Shoot Documentaries, Don't They?

"Don't make any judgments. / Let The Players play," sing the characters of Hands On A Hardbody out to an audience sitting in seats priced at what might be the same amount as the weekly unemployment checks some of them are struggling to survive on.

There's a discomforting freak show aspect to the ambitious new musical by Doug Wright (book), Amanda Green (music and lyrics) and Trey Anastasio (music), but it's the dramatically interesting kind of discomfort that makes the lip of the stage an uneasy barrier between us and them.

Though the actors at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre display more teeth, healthier physiques and clearer eloquence than the actual people filmed in S.B. Bindler's 1997 documentary about an annual publicity stunt held at an East Texas car dealership, the text continually reminds us that with a few bad breaks any of us might find ourselves in a situation where we opt to swallow our pride and make a show of our hardship for a chance to make things just a little better.

As in the dance marathon depicted in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the contest is a winner-take-all test of endurance and sleep deprivation meant to attract curious onlookers who might be tempted into making a purchase. The lucky randomly drawn contestants (24 in real life but only 10 in the musical) must keep at least one hand on a red Nissan pickup without leaning on it or squatting to rest their legs. They get a 15 minute break every six hours (The documentary mentions an additional 5 minute break every hour which is not included in the musical.) and the last one standing with a hand on the hardbody goes home with the prize.

"The American dream, a Japanese car," as one character observes.

The financially struggling contestants include a weary Keith Carradine as an aging oil worker who lost his job and pension after an accident and is on his way to losing his wife. Keala Settle is sweetly touching as a devout Christian who has her entire church praying for her to win decent transportation drive to work and take her children to school. Jon Rua is an American-born young man of Mexican descent who would sell the truck to pay for veterinary school, but first he has to prove to the dealership owners that he's not in the country illegally. Gravel-voiced Dale Soules is the scrappy survivor convinced there's a fix on and Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone is the pretty young waitress who attracts male onlookers to the event.

Tying the evening together with commentary coming from experience is Hunter Foster as a past winner who knows all the strategies and pitfalls involved. Behind scraggy facial hair and a ruthlessly blunt disposition, Foster gives the best performance of his New York career.

The difficulty in adapting such a situation to the musical stage is quickly apparent. There's no story beyond watching each contestant drop out one by one so, as in A Chorus Line, the bulk of the musical comes in songs that serve as individual portraits of each character. The music is an attractive collection of Broadway-sifted country, rock and gospel. Green, a lyricist who's been at her best when jaunty and funny, achieves touching pathos when characters express quiet emotions, but can use more depth when lives get complicated, as in the remembrances of a marine (David Larsen) still haunted by his experiences in the Middle East. The score contains one real gem; a lament for the passing of America's mom-and-pop store landscape in exchange for the bright lights of chain stores and restaurants that make every town look the same. ("Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Wendy's, Applebee's..." repeats the melancholy chorus.)

Save for Foster's bigoted punk (who is nevertheless amusing and interesting in the skilled actor's portrayal) the characters are all sympathetic, so the audience isn't steered by the authors to have a rooting interest in who wins. As the hours tick by we see the competitors bond into a kind of family, with some even helping their rivals through their ordeal, but the evening quickly becomes predictable once audience members catch on to the formula that signals when someone is about to be eliminated; usually in an upbeat moment where the person is making a choice to leave instead of succumbing to physical fatigue. The way the contest ends is so predictable that you may find yourself, as I did, hoping beforehand that they're not going to do what is obviously being built to.

If the text doesn't quite overcome all the challenges of turning the source material into a musical, director Neil Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo fare better in giving movement to an event that's stuck for days in the same place. Set designer Christine Jones places the title metaphor on a turntable that helps us see both the truck and the characters from different angles and there are numerous smooth transitions to isolated moments where the characters can back away from the prize without breaking reality.

While the musical would probably play better without an intermission, the very effective second act opener has the exhausted contestants barely able to hide their pain when brought out to line dance to the title song. It's an ugly display that nevertheless plays to the perverse curiosity that the contest's organizers are depending on to attract potential customers.

Hands On A Hardbody achieves enough to allow forgiveness for its flaws and in the end turns out to be far more satisfying musical theatre than more conventional shows that get it all right.

Photos by Chad Batka.

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