BWW Review: Exceptional Cast Enlivens the Pedestrian HANDS ON A HARDBODY at Wasatch Theatre Company
Ten contestants. Four days. One truck -- and one musical that stalled on Broadway with a mere 28 performances before it rode off into the sunset.
HANDS ON A HARDBODY is the musicalization of a documentary that follows a group of down-on-their-luck Texans in an endurance contest to win a new truck. Entrants are required to stand with one hand affixed to a truck until the final survivor is handed keys.
Wasatch Theatre Company takes a drive in this mediocre musical -- the score is pleasant but there's nothing memorable and padded with extraneous songs. What turbo-charges is the exuberant and excellent-voiced cast comprised of some of the area's finest musical performers.
If only the company could have fully supported the raise-the-roof singing with mics. Ensemble singing soars, but unamplified soloists compete with on-stage accompaniment, and the small audience struggles to comprehend the full lyrics.
Music Director Anne Puzey continues her incomparable work, both with the live band and the large 15-member cast. The piano, guitar, violin and percussion sound fine without the unique Broadway instruments that fully embraced the score's bluegrass vibe through mandolins, multiple acoustic guitars and even a dobro (a resonator guitar played horizontally with a slide).
There's no list of songs in the playbill identifying the character performing each musical number, and cast member pictures were omitted (quizzically photos of the production team were selected to be printed), so it's a challenge to recognize the actors playing which role.
Strongest performances come from Ali Lente as Heather, in "Burn That Bridge"; Karli Rose Lowry as Kelli with Dallon Thorup as Greg, in "I'm Gone"; Derek Gregerson as Chris, in "Stronger"; John Patrick McKenna as the underwritten Benny, in the power ballad "God Answered My Prayer"; and the soulful gospel belting by Casey Matern as Norma (originated by Keala Settle), in "Joy of the Lord."
As choreographer, Marilyn Montgomery does what she can to add life to the inert proceedings of characters standing without lifting a hand from the red-painted 2 by 4s representing a truck. Were this sole set piece constructed more sturdily (or maybe an actual truck), the characters could climb in and atop and leap above the truck, with doors, hood and tailgate opening and closing in time with the music.
It's clear Directors Jonathan Mark and Jim Martin were influential to aid the actors to create sincere, defined characters, but they are unable to make endearing the working-class stiffs, assembled only to bemoan and grumble through their sorry stories and how a truck will assuredly turn their lives around. And there's nothing surprising as the hardscrabble characters depart the competition one-by-one. (Writing from Stephen Schwartz, Mary Rogers and James Taylor couldn't make a best-seller by Pulitzer Prize-winner Studs Terkel into a successful musical with the similarly themed WORKING.) The actors receive no help from Michael Nielsen's generic costumes, with only the radio host appearing as a true Texan.
Because a show made the road trip to Broadway is not a convincing argument it should be revived. Characters are not adequately fleshed out to evoke sympathy and fuel us. Hands off some shows that should rust away. Like the competition as the primary storyline, HANDS ON A HARDBODY is a bit of an endurance test.