The artwork for the show includes the tag line “Made in America.” The creators of the musical Hands on a Hardbody, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, may have made the most American of American musicals in recent memory. A reality show come to life on the Broadway stage, minus all of the hyper “un-reality” of such shows, this musical asks much of its audience. There are no precocious children, model types or shirtless muscle boys doing crazy things just to be noticed. There are no outrageously wealthy folks thrown into an impoverished neighborhood. Instead, there are real Americans on the stage here – all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, religions. There are middle class, lower middle class, and downright poor people here. And all have seen better days. Haven’t we all? Warts and all, these contestants remind us of what this country is all about – working hard, striving for better, and these days, barely getting by. They are difficult to watch at times, but by the glorious, anti-climactic finale, we are all better for having kept their company for two and a half hours.
The story is simple: ten contestants vie for a free truck (a must-have in Texas) by trying to outlast each other while keeping a hand on the prize at all times. One by one, they drop out – exhaustion, delirium, temper, and even a sense of fair play being more important than winning, are some of the culprits. Yes, the story is simple. But the execution is far from it. After a dynamic opening number, we get down to business: all hands on the truck, and so it starts. And nothing happens. No one talks, no one moves. Eventually, the audience laughs in recognition that, in truth, there really isn’t much more to it.
But in the hands of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright and lyricist Amanda Green, Hardbody comes to life as it carefully weaves together the stories of ten real-life Americans, brought together for the prize, but who are there for a myriad of reasons. One needs the truck to have better opportunities at work, another needs it to care for her family, and still others need it to simply get away from small town East Texas. The drama and climactic moments don’t really come from who is winning, but who loses and why. Much of the dialogue and a great portion of the lyrics are lifted directly from interviews conducted by Wright and Green. (Some also come from the source documentary film.) In short, they provide a disturbingly real account of what it is to live in new millennium America.
|The Company on Set|
What is most disturbing is the underlying weight of desperation that hangs over the proceedings, including the design elements. A giant billboard, now advertisement free, bears the scars of capitalism’s glory days, with bits and pieces of faded logos and slogans barely still in view. It is an enormous monolithic tribute to a fancy free time long gone and a reminder of the lack of economic prospects ahead. The rest of Christine Jones’ austere set consists of parking lot light fixtures and a lone strand of garland and lights amidst the “used cars” signs on the dealership lot. And, of course, there’s the titular truck, which silently becomes a character all its own. Supplemented by Kevin Adams’ typically brilliant lighting, we are easily and pleasantly shifted back and forth from the hot, stark reality of the contest to several cooler and colorful fantasy sequences in which the characters reveal all. Susan Hilferty’s equally non-descript, yet very telling costumes, complete the wordless picture of these people. Much like its not-too-distant cousin, A Chorus Line, Hardbody’s cast and situation are neatly set up by the visual – substitute dance tights and tap shoes for ball caps and boots, and that line with that truck. Both shows allowed a lack of theatrical accouterments to highlight the most theatrical aspect of each – the characters.
Director Neil Pepe (probably best known for handling the Speed-the-Plow revival a few seasons ago) has crafted a tightly staged production, allowing for an amazing array of points of view – thanks to an equally amazing moving truck. The focus is always clear, and as conflicts inevitably arise, it is exciting to see how he uses space and barriers to create meaning and support the themes of the show. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo (in my mind woefully under-appreciated at all times) has done what seems impossible – he’s created several all-out dances, no small feat considering that the dancers must always be in contact with that damned truck. The big act one number, “Joy of the Lord,” has understandably gotten a lot of press and chatter on the message boards. It is a rollicking gospel number – part Praise the Lord, part Stomp - that offers the cast and the audience a refreshing uplift of energy, as it bumps and rolls and spins to a thrilling climax. But Trujillo’s other moments – from the youthful joy of the dreamers longing to get out to Vegas and L.A. in “I’m Gone” to the lump-in-your-throat staging of both PTSD and survivor guilt simultaneously in “Stronger” – are just as visually enthralling if not as obvious.
|Dance Moves on a Hardbody|
I had only peripherally heard of the band Phish and had never heard of Hardbody’s music provider Trey Anastasio until the production was announced for La Jolla, and I can’t really speak to that aspect of his life. But I can say that the man has a gift for not only a wide and varied range of American musical styles, but also a natural ear for matching tone and motif to characters. There’s a little bit of everything here – not unlike America itself – with some country, bayou jazz, blues, gospel, contemporary ballad and good old time rock ‘n roll making up the score. He picks his loud moments very carefully, peaking as tempers flare, ebbing as another contestant loses the battle As someone who grew up in a small town and got out, there is so much here that I can relate to. One song, “Used to Be,” is particularly resonant, as it chronicles the shift in American towns and cities from individual service-oriented commerce where everyone knows everyone to generic streets lined with corporate logos and generic stores. “Wal-mart…Walgreen’s…Wendy’s…” they sing wistfully. City folk think you can’t relate? Imagine all of those cool hole-in-the-wall delis and diners replaced with Subways and Denny’s…
And imagine spending your whole life not ever meeting the men and women who make this country great. What a loss. Hardbody may be just a musical, but it brings a terribly under served segment of society to the big time. Maybe next time I run into a Wal-mart, I won’t be so judgmental. Many songs sneak up on you, as if the slow drawl of these mighty Texans would naturally flow into a song and back to dialogue. Those easy transitions help and highlight the fact that much of what we are hearing was actually said, not just a contrivance for the stage. Anastasio's score is quintessential Americana while still feeling completely in the present (Mumford and Sons fans, as well as Phish fans, will be delighted), and never once feels like a freshman effort. The way in which his music is used is not always “traditional Broadway,” and that may ruffle a few feathers. To that, I say, “Keep up the good work!”
A more eclectic group of performers has not been seen on the Broadway stage since the equally gritty, challenging and all-American show The Life. They really represent the Middle America most New Yorkers are probably not familiar with. There is the slick car salesman whose desperation leads him to trying something dishonest (Jim Newman) and his relentlessly cheery, but deadly serious (and unaware of her prejudices) sidekick (the sweet and sassy Connie Ray) – American business summed up in two diverse people. And there is the media personified by a sleazy radio personality who delights in each loss and goes all TMZ trying to hype the event (Scott Wakefield). Traditional marriage is represented by the quietly suffering wife (the underused, but delightful Mary Gordon Murray) and the exuberantly supportive husband – he wears a cardboard crown with his wife’s name on it – the sweet and funny William Youmans.
In an effort to not give away any of the outcome, I’ll discuss each of the contestants in alphabetical order by actor’s last name (like the billing in the Playbill). Keith Carradine does a nice job with a difficult to like character – a man who is tired from years of working with little to show for it, and bitter from being physically and emotionally beaten down. That ray of sunshine from Hair, Allison Case, provides a similar ray of light here, as the girl with big dreams of even bigger places. She sings with a power and purity that lifts every song she’s a part of. Then there is the hyper, rude and all around unlikable guy that Hunter Foster plays. His belligerence and unwavering disdain for just about everyone provides much conflict – at one point I actually muttered aloud, “I HATE HIM!” But it is to Foster’s credit that not 3 minutes later he had me reduced to tears of sympathy and a bit of embarrassment for judging the man without all of the facts at hand. His intense “Hunt with the Big Dogs” provides the close of act one with a dramatic gut punch.
|Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case|
The handsome and gosh-darn-aw-shucks smile of Jay Armstrong Johnson are a winning combination for the guy who represents youth and big dreams – he wants to be a stunt man – but struggles with a harsher more impoverished reality. Johnson is a very strong singer and a terrifically athletic dancer. It is especially nice to see him in a prominent role all his own, after understudying in Hair and Catch Me If You Can. The muscular, menacing presence of David Larsen’s military man is a breath-taking contrast to the man who falls apart in front of us. The man has some serious pipes on full view during the gut-wrenching aria “Stronger.” I can’t wait to see what this guy does next! Jacob Ming-Trent nails the cuddly but strong man who just wants a fair shot in life, be it on the assembly line, behind a desk or out with the ladies. He is the guy who everyone else could take a page from – his optimism in the face of desperation is inspiring, and his gentle sense of humor provides some welcome relief.
Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone successfully navigates a character we should despise into someone we want to watch anyway. The most conventionally beautiful person on the stage, her waitress character is a perplexing mix of insecurities and a sense of entitlement. She acts without thinking, and it isn’t long before the whiff of unfair conduct attaches itself to her. It is how she deals with that reveals who this woman really is, and Ms. Monteleone plays it very well. (I should mention here that her subplot could easily be excised from Wright’s otherwise fat-free book. It is the one element of the story that doesn’t ring true, and is more deftly handled by the group than by her brief duet.) In quiet contrast, Jon Rua provides one of the breakout performances of the show. He plays a misunderstood Hispanic who must deal with everyone else's prejudices. It is sad to watch him try to avoid conflict, even while the bigotry of others is literally yelled in his face. And to watch him finally come into his own, telling his All-American story in the soaring “Born in Laredo” is a welcome catharsis for both character and audience. Rua is another star-on-the-rise to watch for.
Finally, there are Keala Settle and Dale Soules, who represent the devoutly religious and the poorer, uneducated of society, respectively. By virtue of their real-life counterparts, they have the most dynamic characters and the most attention of the audience. Both have the most authentic voices in the show – you’d swear both were from the hot sticks of Texas. And both have the fortune of being able to play extremes. Settle balances a calm, at peace God-loving woman with a very humorous nervous reaction resulting in the big “Joy of the Lord” number. Soules, what Janis Joplin might have turned out like had she lived, plays a loud and proud redneck (but don’t call her a “hick”!) balanced with a woman who is proud to be a wife and mother with a sense of fairness that is unmatched. Her duet with Youmans, “When She Sleeps” is a sweet and very funny ode to life in redneck territory, and her angry “It’s a Fix” encapsulates in a few minutes what everyone who has gotten the short end of the stick in life feels.
|Hands on a Hardbody|
Perhaps the most telling (and in retrospect, one of the more interesting) things about the show is that when the winner is determined it is so anti-climactic. In fact the winner goes a few minutes not even realizing they have achieved victory and is unsure as to if they can take their hands off that truck. It says a lot that by the end it doesn’t matter who won the truck. Every one of the ten deserved it for a ten different reasons. But the real victory came to all of them when they found strength they didn’t know they had, when they faced down adversity, learned to embrace diversity, and found that the greatest prize was meeting 10 strangers on a hot car lot in Texas. And the show ends with one of the best final numbers in recent memory, if not ever, “Keep Your Hands On It.”
Easily one of the best American musical in several seasons, Hands on a Hardbody deserves our attention and the effort it takes to find all of the treasures of this deceptively complex piece. It is all-American in all the ways it can be. How nice that it is patriotic but not wrapped up in a perfect red, white and blue bow. No, it is red, white, blue, blood, sweat and tears – a tribute not a parody. “Made in America” indeed.
(Photos by Chad Batka)