Review: 'Hands on a Hardbody' tuneful, sweet ode
This theater image released by The Hartman Group shows the cast during a performance of "Hands on a Hard Body," at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York and featuring songs co-written by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Chad Batka)
NEW YORK (AP) — If sales of Nissan pickup trucks tick up in the next few months, there may be an unlikely source: a Broadway musical.
"Hands on a Hardbody," a seemingly far-fetched stage show based on a documentary that features songs co-written by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, stars a modified Aztec red Nissan. By the end of the show, you'll swear that truck can dance.
You might, too. Anastasio and Broadway veteran Amanda Green have written a soundtrack of mostly fine songs in a nice mix of styles — blues, gospel, country and honky-tonk — that will fire you right up.
Playwright Doug Wright has had some fun himself, the cast is committed and realistic, and the whole thing is a pleasing, tuneful, heart-filled ode to small towns and American dreams.
The musical that opened Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, following a stop at the La Jolla Playhouse, is based on S.R. Binder's 1997 documentary about an endurance contest at an east Texas car dealership that offered a free pickup to whoever could keep a hand on it the longest.
The creative team behind the musical has taken some liberties with the story but has been faithful about the vehicle — it's an engine-less Nissan truck frame.
Weighing 1,400 pounds, the truck rests on 16 casters and the 10 actors who play contestants whip the thing around using only elbow grease. The reluctance to use any Broadway trickery — yes, that's you, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" — is commendable, keeping the story and actors true to their gritty roots.
Director Neil Pepe and Sergio Trujillo, who did musical staging, get full credit for making this show move delightfully despite the subject matter being an exhausting test of endurance — the show's winner stood for 91 hours — and a hunk of metal in the middle of the stage.
How do they do it? Trujillo has his actors duck under each other's arms, jump and dance on the spinning truck, make it the object of a tug-of-war and even bring the house down in a "Stomp"-like song in which the actors knock out a beat on the Nissan itself, turning it into a big drum.
The 15-character cast includes the nervous owners of the truck dealership and 10 down-on-their-luck guys and gals for whom the $22,000 truck represents a new chance. Or, as the somewhat clumsy first number argues, "It's more than a contest/It's more than dumb luck/It's more than extra cash/It is much more than a truck!"
One contestant is a devout Latina, another a muscled war veteran and a third is a good ol' boy whose wife has come along for support. There's a pretty redhead and a flirtatious blonde. There's also a "tough old bird with sun-burnished skin and missing teeth," as the script suggests. By the end, you care about all of them.