22 March 2013

‘Hands on a Hardbody’ on Broadway

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

Hands on a Hardbody takes an unlikely subject for musical theater — a contest to win a pickup truck — and does something even unlikelier for Broadway. With a book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, and music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda, this is nothing less than an exploration of faith, in which the truck becomes a vehicle for spiritual redemption.

In the secular, socialist People’s Republic of Manhattan, that’s daring, but the creators of Hands on a Hardbody sneak up on you. One character complains in Act I about “people who shove religion down your throat,” but that’s not what’s going on at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. You’re never preached at, and by the time you realize the philosophical purpose of the enterprise, you’re already caught up in the characters, the suspense, and the songs.

The show is set in Texas, and based on a documentary film. It would be downright weird if the characters didn’t allude to their Christian faith at some point. But they do so meaningfully, not casually (the way that many Texans speak of faith), and as the story unfolds in its quirky, disarming way, we see that each of the contestants has been tempted and tested by at least one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and they’ve broken at least one of the Ten Commandments: they start at a disadvantage, because of course all of them covet that truck.

Opening-night curtain call.

I predict with confidence a future in which Hands on a Hardbody will be produced by community theaters and church groups — anybody who can figure out how to get a truck on the stage. But what struck me at Wednesday’s matinée (the penultimate preview performance) was how the show affected an audience of jaded New Yorkers. They began by snickering at the Texans: I wanted to yell out that, funny though they are, there’s not a single caricature among the characters. But as the contestants were eliminated, gasps rang out in the audience, and folks got teary, too.

And is there any purer expression of faith than Keala Settle’s performance of “Joy of the Lord”? As the devout Norma Valverde, for whom hundreds of churchgoers are praying, she begins the number by listening to gospel music on headphones and feeling the presence of God — and it makes her laugh.

She starts with a chuckle and, in a perfectly calibrated crescendo, moves on to giggles and then to guffaws. This is infectious, and even before we really understand what she’s laughing about, we’re joining in. By the time she launches her song, we are ready to listen — and it’s a hell of a number.

Settle (far left) feels the spirit.

This is a breakout performance, and if there’s any justice it will make Settle a star. But it’s indicative of the overall approach of Hands on a Hardbody: this is a show about character. It’s not one of those infernal manufactured Broadway machines, in which the actors are anonymous and interchangeable and rely on our knowledge of the source material in order to score their points. But neither is Hands a star vehicle, and it features one of the most self-effacing performances you can imagine from the biggest name in the cast, Oscar-winner Keith Carradine, who wears his role like an old pair of jeans and who blends easily into the ensemble.

The juiciest role goes to Hunter Foster, playing an unrepentant (for now) cuss who’s already won the contest once and is determined to win it again, no matter who gets hurt. Yet in some ways the real star of the show is the red pickup itself. It gets most of the best choreography in the show, pushed and spun around the stage by the contestants who, by the rules of the competition, must keep one hand on the truck at all times. The actors do dance around the truck, and Serge Trujillo’s musical staging is inventive and fluid. But really, there’s only one prima ballerina in this show, and she’s got wheels.

Reality meets Broadway: Contestants from S.R. Bindler’s documentary film, opening night.

“I didn’t think much of the truck at first, but by the end, it was kind of beautiful,” said one woman (audibly not a Texan) near me as we left the theater. The same is true of the characters, and it’s here that Amanda’s special gift, her ability to give voice to and her refusal to condescend to the dreams of the people she writes about, reaches its peak and finds its match in her collaborators. Even the officious Cindy Barnes (played to perfection by Connie Ray) has a heart and a purpose inside her careful coiffure and her Chamber of Commerce suit. And some of the first to drop out of the contest in Act I will return in Act II — because they’re still looking for that redemption.

Perfectly cast, the show stays true to its characters, but it never forgets that it’s a musical: everybody gets a song (or two) to reveal the truth within. Small-town princess Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) and hotshot truck dealer Mike (Jim Newman) engage in a dance of temptation and corruption, in almost sexual terms (“Burn That Bridge”). Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray, with the face of a worn-out country goddess) expresses resignation and disappointment in the wistful “Alone with Me.” Ronald (Jacob Ming-Trent) exposes his feet of clay in “The Problem Right There.” Jesus (Jon Rua) teases us with the question of his origins — is he an illegal? — before erupting in “Born in Laredo.”

I admired all the first-rate singing actors in this ensemble, which also includes Scott Wakefield as a grinning radio personality who discovers actual news breaking out at a promotional event; and the delectable Dale Soules as a cantankerous wife and William Youmans as the husband who can’t give her anything but love — and air conditioning. Jacob Ming-Trent is winning as a contestant who’s figured out every angle but one, and David Larsen is the unbending Army veteran who’s bound to melt. And in a musical, boy really must meet girl: Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case field that assignment with unaffected grace.

The choice: Personal relationships, or a pickup?
Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case
as Greg and Kelli, dreaming of Hollywood.

The design team is the same as that for the Met’s new production of Rigoletto*, affording writers like me the unique opportunity to use the words “Rigoletto” and “hardbody” in the same sentence. Christine Jones’ set could hardly be starker: just the truck, a dilapidated billboard, a couple of banners. But Kevin Adams’ lighting brings it all to life, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes are admirably authentic looking. Neil Pepe’s directing credits number far more straight plays than musicals, including a lot of David Mamet, and I daresay that’s why he knows how to keep the dramatic focus so clean and the characters so vivid.

As J.D., Carradine gives voice to a lament I heard from no less than Horton Foote, some 15 years ago: that small-town Texas has been conquered by impersonal national corporations, like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. It “Used to Be” that “every town was as different as its name, but now they’re all the same,” J.D. says. I wonder how many New Yorkers appreciate the fact that this is exactly what’s happened to this city — even to its Broadway musicals — under mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.

But now there’s a Broadway musical that looks and sounds like no other. It’s got a pickup in it, but that’s not what makes it so moving. It’s not a tourist-trap thrill ride — it’s about real people — and not only because it’s based on a documentary film.

And yes, my darling Amanda Green has demonstrated conclusively that she’s more Texan than I am. No contest. Amanda, you win. Expect my mother to file formal adoption papers later today.

The creative team: Anastasio, Wright, Amanda, Pepe, Trujillo.

NOTE: I reviewed Rigoletto for the Italian online magazine GBOpera.it, here. You can read the review in English, but really, you should click to the bottom of the page for the link to the Italian translation. It makes me sound much more authoritative.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Hands on a Hardbody takes place in Longview, Texas. I have been there, and I fondly recall that it is home to the largest chicken-fried steaks I have ever seen: asteroid-size. I wonder if that diner is still there.

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