Based on a documentary film by S. R. Bindler, Hands on a Hard Body depicts a contest where a group of people see how long they can stand with their hands on a new truck. The last one standing wins the truck. That’s the long and the short of this new musical with a score by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green with lyrics by Ms. Green and a book by Doug Wright.
Remember in Cats how it was about introducing the audience to all the different cats and then we waited to find out which cat was going to kitty heaven? Think of this show as Cats without the kitty costumes. Although, in Cats we kind of knew which one would go to the Heavy Side Layer because she sang the best song, “Memory.” Here there is no song as good as “Memory” to tip us off and the winner is rather a surprise. However, that’s not much of a compensation for a show about nothing, with no conflict between the characters and no plot of any consequence.
One could could validate the show as a character study. That would be true, but it isn’t enough to hang a show on or string a score of songs together without some illusive bit of magic to elevate the trifle. The score is pleasant with a country twang to it, but there is a sameness to all the numbers. Each character gets one major song to tell their story, but the characters don’t really emerge as more than types. The leaders of the production are the hard working and talented Hunter Foster as Benny and Keith Carradine as JD Drew, but there is little they can do to elevate the entertainment. Nor do either of them get a song that makes best advantage of their abilities.
Two stand out numbers that intrigued involve a young man and woman who strike up a romance during the proceedings and dream about going to Hollywood in the truck if they win it. Their song prompts the only strong relationship between characters and later, the only true conflict when several characters convince the young man to remove his hands from the car to run after his new found girlfriend. Also, a revival number called “Joy of the Lord,” is truly rousing and displays the most effective choreography in the show by Sergio Trujillo.
Neil Pepe’s direction is restricted to dealing with ways to allow the cast to have moments away from being attached to the truck. The truck can be pushed around and turned to help keep the show from being static, but it almost makes you dizzy to watch it turn as much as it does. Christine Jones has been less than creative in designing a set to frame the truck and frankly, the environment is rather unattractive. The main backdrop consists of a gigantic highway billboard that looks to have had its last advertisement stripped off years ago. For some reason, as a fancy special effect, the billboard opens like a blind––a finale trick that signifies nothing. Susan Hilferty’s costumes help define characters nicely, but they only get one costume until they return cleaned up and freshly pressed in new outfits for the curtain call. This leaves lighting designer Kevin Adams to the task of giving the show the majority of the production value and he takes full advantage of the situation with plenty of theatrical flourishes that aid, but do not overwhelm the production.
The ensemble of players are an odd group and give the production great variety. They very much look like the unglamorous small town types they are supposed to be––few looking like they could rise to the demands of a Broadway musical at first glance, but rise they do. All of them sing wonderfully and execute some difficult choreography with precision and flair. Unfortunately the show is too unsubstantial to provide the cast with a durable showcase.