Handling a HardbodyEntertainment Feature Thursday, June 14th, 2012
What do you say when a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of your Tony decorated show asks for a commission for a new musical? Such is the case with Doug Wright (I Am my Own Wife) and the La Jolla Playhouse’s Hands on a Hardbody (based on the documentary of the same title).
The body of the titillating title is a 2,800-pound Nissan hardbody truck, the object of the inescapably strong desire of ten Longview, Texas contestants. Such publicity stunts date back to 1920s flag-pole sitting. In this endurance competition, the last person standing with hands planted on the truck drives away as a thoroughbred Texan.
Mr. Wright’s libretto maps out a lightly engaging trip through the static competition. The story’s outcome doesn’t hold much mystery. Amanda Green’s (lyrics and music) and Trey Anastazio’s (music) score takes an excursion through Country Western ballads, Country Western waltz, Country Western honky tonk, Country Western R&B, Country Western tear jerk, Country Western swing, Country Western anthem and the inevitable gospel number (twice).
It seems we can’t go to a new musical that hasn’t appropriated African American music forms to assure a punched-up act (Rent’s Act 2 opening). Christopher Ashley’s Broadway production Leap of Faith is a recent example. The first sure-fire occurrence in Hardbody is Jacob Ming Trent’s (Ronald) American Idol oversell in Act 1.
A more profitable example is the ecstatic Bible-thumping Keala Settle (Norma) who puts the pedal to the metal with Joy of the Lord which stops the show. Amusement personified, Ms. Settle emerges as a private chuckle; Ms. Settle winds her way to petite snicker, laugh, guffaw and belly laugh enriched with convulsive giggles and silence in a magnetic performance that inspires the company to primal drum beats. With truck as percussive instrument we are beat into believing. By show’s end Norma’s crisis of faith poignantly brings us into her fold.
Hunter Foster (Benny) plays the devious returning winner with cocksure vocal power. Bigoted Benny unexpectedly befriends a fellow middle-aged man, J.D. (Keith Carradine). J.D. is a disillusioned married man whose remnants of his flaccid passion is driving off to a fishing weekend with the boys. Mr. Carradine turns in a tempered subtle performance. He blends into the ensemble and rises appropriately when called. His singing has a pleasant oboe-like quality that proves moving in his attempt to rekindle a semblance of worth in his heart.
The truck as character, set-piece, metaphor, symbol, weapon, fetish and dubious prize turns out to be handled with dexterity and aplomb by choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s (Black Swan) musical staging.
Director Neil Pepe periodically surprises with silent moments he’s beautifully solicited from his actors. The nonverbal impact of the psychosis that overcomes the few remaining contestants jolts us into the emotional story as strongly as does the score.
The Broadway tourist industry has a target market for Hardbody. The “suits” have been south to see it and picked it up for a 2012-2013 opening. With Broadway Across America as a lead producer, the show has wheels. So catch it now, as this is the last weekend to see it before it pulls away from San Diego.
Hands on a Hardbody
Book by Doug Wright
Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Through June 17
Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse
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