Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hands on a Hardbody

If the radio in the shiny red pickup onstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre had been turned on, we could at least have had some good music to listen to during the two-and-a-half-hour drudgery of Hands on a Hardbody, the new Broadway musical inspired by a 1997 documentary about a bunch of down-on-their-luck Texans competing to win a truck. Instead, everything about this show about an endurance contest proves to be an endurance contest of its own.

I had assumed before I went that choreography could be limited -- it is almost nonexistent -- since the 10 people competing to win the truck (the hardbody of the title. Sorry, I know the word conjures a more interesting image.) must keep one hand on it at all times, but I kept hoping Sergio Trujillo, who did the musical staging, would allow them to step away and dance out their pasts in flashbacks or their dreams of the future. But no, they stand by their truck for six hours, then a 15-minute break and it’s back to the contest, waiting to see who will be the last one standing in the hot Texas sun.

OK, so that takes care of the choreography, one of the most important elements of a Broadway musical. That shortcoming could be overcome with good music but, as I’ve indicated, that won’t be found here either. The songs (lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Trey Anastasio and Green) are bland pop/rock when they should be all-out country. As the Dixie Chicks would say, “Let it rip.” Too bad they didn’t write the music. I love their CDs. Or Kristin Chenoweth who wrote a couple of songs for her country CD, Some Lessons Learned, that are true examples of the genre. One would even be appropriate, the hilarious “What Would Dolly Do?”, with its line: “So . . . Take your truck and shove it/ I know how much you love it/ And it’s a good thing ‘cause that’s where you’re moving to.”

I love country music and expected a lively evening of it, evoking a small town in east Texas, but instead got a country-lite version that took away any feeling specifically of Texas. The location (set design by Christine Jones) could have been any tacky dealership in New Jersey or on Long Island. I wish director Neil Pepe had camped it up, playing up Texas’ redneck image for some fun. 

Transforming a documentary into a Broadway musical takes more imagination than this show offers. Could this musical be saved, without good music or rousing choreography? Maybe, if the characters were interesting, which they are not. (Book by Doug Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am My Own Wife.) Rather, they’re one-dimensional stereotypes -- a Bible-toting Christian, a troubled veteran -- the most boring people I can recall encountering onstage. Too bad because the cast includes Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster. They deserve better.

 Hardbody premiered at La Jolla Playhouse, where it received good reviews, prompting its move to Broadway. But at least one veteran of the Great White Way might have felt the way I did. After the show I saw Neil Simon trudging up the aisle and he looked as weary as I felt. It was a long night for us all.

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