The cast of <i>Hands on a Hardbody</i>
The cast of Hands on a Hardbody
(© Chad Batka)
Musical theater devotees looking for a contemporary American musical that doesn't revolve around starving artists, New Yorkers, or stories you've already seen on film, rejoice: a new star-spangled hot rod has landed on Broadway, and it's got a Southern twang.

Hands on a Hardbody, now at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, doesn't escape the "stage adaptation of a movie" label entirely: It's based on the 1997 documentary of the same title, and follows the true story of struggling Texans locked in a brutal endurance test win a $22,000 Nissan truck. To ride off with the prize, which represents money for some and transportation for others, contestants must keep one gloved (so as not to ruin that sexy, high-gloss paint job) hand on the vehicle at all times — no sitting, no squatting, no mercy. Exposed to sun, hot asphalt, and nightly swarms of mosquitoes, competitors battle fatigue and sleep deprivation until, like a backwoods Hunger Games, the last man standing wins.

While it won't make a difference to the average showgoer, fans of the documentary will notice deviations from the story. Pulitzer Prize-winning book writer Doug Wright (who turned the celluloid bio Grey Gardens into a cult Broadway hit) has whittled the original field of 24 competitors down to 10, and the cuts are a slight disappointment. The film's real-life contestants were a 64-shade-box-of-Crayola crazy, with folks ranging from a grown man with a passion for tight jeans to church ladies who come out and pray over their truck-holding sister in Christ.

On stage, we meet a streamlined group of archetypes instead: the blonde sexpot, the schizoid used-car salesman, the small-town girl with big dreams. Fortunately, folks like devout Christian wife Norma (Keala Settle), whose entire church is communing for her win; Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster), a sour-mouthed redneck who's won the contest once before, and weary husband JD Drew (Keith Carradine), competing against doctor's orders and his wife's patience, all make the cut, as do several more of the flick's most quotable characters. (We're looking at you, Ronald!)

Whatever the show loses by scrapping some nutters is gained back by the sincere performances of the cast, all of whom play their types with authenticity and appropriate delirium. The truck may be the star of the show — it spends the full 2 hours and 20 minutes center stage being pushed, pulled, and whipped around by the players attached to it — but Settle, as Norma, steals every scene she's in. The spectacularly bizarre lead-in to her big number, "Joy of the Lord," is more difficult to pull off than most Shakespearean monologues, and her solo vocals reveal a soulful, oversized gospel range that drives the Holy Spirit straight to the back of the theater. When she tearfully realizes what her faith in God may have wrought, it stings like a chigger bite. Settle's touching performance should go on the shortlist for every Best Featured Actress prize in town.

Equally lovable is standout Connie Ray, who brings pluck and sex appeal to frustrated Nissan dealership manager/contest officiate Cindy Barnes. Tony Award nominee Foster, who has buried his boyish face under a salt-and-pepper goatee, does well as Perkins, a relentless jerk who dons a leather fanny-pack without apology. Carradine is, per usual, a warm and grounded presence. His aching duet with wife Virginia (Mary Gordon Murray) about married life after the honeymoon has been over for decades, "Alone With Me," is one of the show's strongest.

Observing a cast comprised entirely of people who look like real people is a rarity on screen or stage, and in this case both a necessity and a treat. Keep your silken dance bodies and Disney princess smiles — this is a world of beer guts, cellulite, and, in the blessed case of the excellent Dale Soules, gravelly voices that bring to mind Elaine Stritch drinking Bud Light in a beach chair next to a lawn flamingo.

Fans of composer Trey Anastasio (solo artist and founding member of psychedelic phenomenon Phish) will recognize his handiwork as soon as the jam-band arpeggios start climbing up and around show opener "Human Drama Kind of Thing." But the hippie mood quickly settles into a contemporary Broadway score with strong pop-country and gospel influences (the kids on Nashville best look out for Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson on "I'm Gone"). The problem is the curation of songs, which are packed closely together and vary wildly from one genre to the next. One wishes for more of Wright's wry book and less of librettist Amanda Green's twee lyrics. The power ballad "Stronger," sung by an underwritten marine (David Larsen), is so cliched it borders on pandering, and features unfortunate choreography (by Tony Award winner Sergio Trujillo) that transforms the competitors into a platoon of marching, faux soldiers. Placed differently in the set list, and stripped of theatrics, the piece could have been a quiet moment for an emotive actor. Instead, it's a buzz kill that snuffs out the energy drummed up by the preceding number, an uptempo riff-fest with Stomp-like truck percussion.

Early on, Perkins warns that if you "go numb" during the competition, you're dead. It is a warning the production heeds inconsistently. For all its entertainment value and innovation (Neil Pepe's direction presents a static event from every angle), Hardbody fails to flesh out its characters enough to move us, and without that emotional hook the stakes never seem to rise. Do we want the young Mexican American who needs the truck for tuition money, or the sweet UPS worker who wants out of dodge, to win? Of course. But when a body falls, so little leaves the stage with it that there isn't much reason to mourn.

Hands on a Hardbody stretches from bumper to taillight to make clear the competitors onstage are feuding not for a truck, but the American Dream, and are not just Texans, but folks like you. Which is a fine message. But the draw of the original documentary was its eerie reminder that not only are some folks not like you — some people are just nuts. Had the musical made room for a few more unjustified loons, it would be a better-rounded piece that both mainstream theatergoers, and the fringe-dwellers the documentary starred (and targeted), could plug into completely. Hands on a Hardbody is glossy, smooth, and fun to look at, but as soon as something shinier drives by, you're likely to trade it in.