Hands on a Hardbody
La Jolla Playhouse
This production raises many interesting questions, one of which is the importance of source material vs strength of the creative team. The incongruous premise is a musical based on a Texas car dealership’s endurance contest (last person touching the truck gets the truck). But in the hands of a multi-faceted creative team, this production shines.
The play had its genesis when Doug Wright stumbled across a documentary film about the contest. Having grown up only a few hours from where the events took place, Wright’s curiosity was piqued. With several awards under his belt (Pulitzer, Tony), Wright had already shown his authorial prowess in productions as varied as I Am My Own Wife, Little Mermaid and Quills. Composer/lyricist Amanda Green had become friendly with Trey Anastasio, he of the jam band Phish. Musical staging is by the wonderfully named Benjamin Millepied, who did the choreography for the film Black Swan. Neil Pepe has directed a slew of plays on and off Broadway (from Mamet and Pinter to Ethan Coen and Adam Ripp).
After much workshopping, the Hardbody musical began to take shape.
Now on offer at the venerable La Jolla Playhouse, the musical is far more compelling than most theatre goer’s pre-conceived notions. The production melds a sadly American notion (‘if I could just get this one more thing, my life would be fine’) with finely crafted character studies, driven by superb song craft. In fact, the songs are more sturdy than some of the more acclaimed musicals.
The cast features an appropriately diverse range of players. If one could identify lead characters, they would probably be JD Crew (Keith Carradine) who is befriended by defending champion Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster). Together with the audience we come to know the other well-drawn characters.
Although the production takes understandable poetic license with the actual story, to their credit the producers offered the real life contestants a financial stake in the show. Arguably, the contest is a form of exploitation (even if no one held a gun to any contestant’s head), and the musical steers clear of causing that concern.
Fans of music by Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle will enjoy the alt/Texan songs by Amanda Green. She builds the songs on some classic catchphrases: ‘a truck to a Texan is just like his hat’ and the show stopping finale ‘if you love something keep your hands on it.’ Co-composer Anastasio mentioned that having played a gig with his band Phish for eight hours straight (11pm to dawn), he knows something about marathon-like behavior.
Many of us entered the theatre with trepidation, especially on seeing the eponymous blue pickup truck on stage. All of us left the theatre thoroughly impressed and uplifted.