Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
May 18, 2012
‘If you love something, keep your hands on it.’
That’s the message of the commissioned world premiere musical at the La Jolla Playhouse. The provocative title isn’t new; “Hands on a Hardbody” is actually the name of the contest and the documentary that inspired the musical.
In the mid-‘90s, a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, devised a highly unusual marketing campaign — an endurance competition, all about the last one standing. Whoever can keep a hand on a hardbody truck the longest gets to drive the vehicle home.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright actually hired a detective to track down the real contestants who appeared in the 1997 film. The eight they found gave willing permission to use their names and stories. Then Wright embellished, added a few fictional characters and voilà! A musical about desperation and the ever-elusive American Dream.
These folks are all adrift, distressed, seriously down on their luck. Most are unemployed; some are living on oatmeal and food stamps. The truck, they’re convinced, will turn their lives around.
The stage contest lasts longer than the real-life ones did – nearly six days! – with only a 15-minute break every six hours, which induces not only exhaustion and sleep deprivation, but numbness, disorientation, hallucinations, even a touch of insanity.
We see it all in “Hardbody,” as each of the ten contestants tells a hard-luck story in song. There’s Norma, the God-loving Latina, whose rousing gospel number, “Joy of the Lord,” is the foot-stomping show-stopper of the evening.
There’s an Iraq war vet, a blonde hottie , and two young hopefuls who share a dream of escape. The senior contender, played by Keith Carradine , is JD, troubled by a deteriorating body and marriage.
At the center, wonderful Hunter Foster is brash, arrogant, racist Benny, a former contest winner whose wife drove off in his new truck, with another man.
The songs they sing, co-written by lyricist Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio , frontman of the jam-rock band, Phish, have a country-rock twang, with a little R&B thrown in for fun.
The cast is terrific, and so’s the band. There isn’t much dancing, but they do spin that truck around. Perhaps it was overkill to bring in “Black Swan” choreographer Benjamin Millepied , but the inherent immobility of the contest does create a challenge, inventively met. The theater, like the stage, is strung with parking lot pennants, to keep us in the mood and the moment.
This is a first-rate team all down the line, and under the direction of Neil Pepe , the show moves at an energetic clip, though there are some sluggish spots in Act II.
What seemed like a tacky premise and an unlikely musical has turned into a poignant, sometimes heart-rending portrait of working-class America, dispirited and disaffected, just trying to hang on.
“Hands on a Hardbody” continues through June 17 at the La Jolla Playhouse.
©2012 PAT LAUNER