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Our Picks: Why ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ Should Be A Best Musical Nominee

Hands on a Hardbody

Hands on a Hardbody

By James Cooper

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Asked if they would go to see a musical called “Hands on a Hardbody,” most people would shrug in bewilderment, thinking perhaps of body building or bedroom behavior, but this charming musical is about 10 down-on-their-luck Texan men and women who want to compete to win a $22,000 Nissan truck. All they have to do is to keep one hand on the truck longer than any of the others. No sitting or squatting is allowed as they endure the hot asphalt, variable weather and nightly swarms of bugs.

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Oh, and that’s one gloved hand so they won’t spoil the truck’s shiny new finish. The music, by Phish lead player and composer Trey Anastasio, has a charming Texas twang, but reveals Phish-like arpeggios and morphs into a set of blues, pop-country and gospel-influenced songs. Reviewers praised its rousing choral music.

The book for this show is by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Doug Wright, who also wrote the book for the cult-musical “Grey Gardens.” He based it on the 1997 documentary movie of the same title; although that film had 24 contestants.

Lyrics are by Amanda Green, daughter of Adolph Green. So the show had a tremendous pedigree and received mostly very good notices.

The cast included Broadway veterans Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine. Carradine plays an oil-rig worker who has been laid off after a fall from the rig and who thinks he can win despite his injured leg, and Foster plays cocky Benny Perkins who has already won the contest once, but his “wife drove off with the first haul.” He thinks he has the strategy to succeed again.

Another endearing contestant is “big-voiced Keala Settle,” whom the The New York Times thinks “her faith will hold her up when the going gets tough.” She sings a stirring a cappella gospel number that is one of the “show’s most upbeat songs.”

There also seems to be some funny business going on between the truck dealership owner and a young blonde competitor played by Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, because the dealer (Jim Newman) really is hoping for a telegenic winner.

The Times praises Anastasio and Green’s songs, which they “have taken care to scrub the music — and the orchestrations — of the canned sound that blasts from the speakers at most Broadway musicals.”

In fact, they and music director Carmel Dean incorporate some unusual instruments into the orchestrations, including the dobro, mandolins and several acoustic guitars.

The Hollywood Reporter praised the show for being a “sincere story of blue-collar Middle Americans living paycheck to paycheck while striving for a reprieve that’s as much symbolic as material. Examining hardscrabble lives rooted in today’s bleak economic reality is hardly the usual domain of the Broadway musical. That makes this gently appealing show a welcome change of pace.”

But despite all that praise and talent, this lovely little show closed after 56 performances–28 of them previews–and most of the production staff felt that the title hurt them quite a bit. The talented composer, lyricist and playwright as well as the stellar cast deserved better. Let’s hope that they deserve a Tony for this lovely little “handmade” show.

James Cooper is a freelance writer covering all things Theater and Fairfield County. His work can be found on Examiner.com.