Bros on Broadway: Does Our Dude Think Hands on a Hardbody is a Hot Ride or a Total Lemon?
A devotee of the original Hands on a Hardbody doc weighs in on whether Broadway does Texans and trucks justice.
Remember the guy who nominated Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf star Carrie Coon for a Tony Award for Excellent Drunk Acting? That guy would be Colin Weatherby, our extremely tall woodsman with limited affection for musicals.
After sending Colin to a famed Broadway drama, we felt it best to roll him onto 47th Street to catch brand-spanking new American musical Hands on a Hardbody, about hardscrabble Texans battling it out in a grueling competition for a red Nissan truck. Turns out Mr. Weatherby is a member of the cult surrounding the original Hardbody, the documentary that inspired the musical. He may not know tuners, but it turns out he knows more than enough about the real-life "rednecks" who fuel the show from start to finish to give this Broadway debut a mostly educated review.
Name: Colin Weatherby [Note: Editorial still recognizes this as the least bro-y name ever.]
Occupation: Freelance Reporter
Bro Cred: Colin was a two-sport high school varsity letterman. He's also a semi-pro outdoor adventure guide and amateur watermelon-eating champion.
Fun Fact: Colin was once knocked out cold by a low-hanging subway sign.
Broadway Shows Seen: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Show Reviewed: Hands on a Hardbody
Here's the deal. The documentary that served as the basis for this play is pretty important to me. It came out when I was 14, and it's basically everything that a mid-'90s teenager living in some boring suburb dreams about: absurd comedy, rednecks, and free trucks. It was also just obscure enough — back when obscure was still a thing — for a middlebrow teenager to get really pretentious about. If you could spit lines from The Big Lebowski, Office Space, and Hands On a Hard Body, I may have let you come over to drink a Surge and play air hockey in my parents' garage.
The story here is idiot-proof: A bunch of lunatics stand around in a car lot with their hands on a truck until one is left standing. That person gets to drive the truck away. The Broadway adaptation begins with the contestants jumping around and tossing that truck (a real truck!) across the stage like it's a paperweight, which is a pretty clever effect. I was psyched. All the characters looked just like they did in the movie. The set was pretty bare, but it totally felt like a used-car lot. I bet they went sparse on the design because these cast members, even the full-figured ones, are dancing like crazy the entire show.
I don't really do musicals because the music usually makes my skin crawl, but some of these songs get pretty close to rocking. It was even nice to see some of the relationships between the characters competing explained through the art of song. Most of the lyrics aren't half bad, and Trey Anastasio from Phish wrote all the music, which explains why it didn't sound like the crap on Glee. Everybody who knows the movie can tell you that it's all about the amazing quotes, and the script managed to squeeze a bunch of the best ones in here. The wacky husband (William Youmans) with a giant air-conditioner is perfect as Don Curtis, and his old crotchety wife (played by Dale Soules) is one of my favorite characters. She can't sing a lick but it works for her. The rotund Latino lady with the headphones on (Keala Settle) is even better here than in the movie because she can sing and dance. The old white dude (Keith Carradine, as J.D. Drew) is very believable. I learned at intermission that his brother was David Carradine from Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (another staple of my childhood), which made him even cooler.
The two employees at the Nissan dealership are both great and way different from those in the movie, but I have to say that the sales lady (Connie Ray) is probably the best part of this whole show. She provides the best delivery of all her lines, totally reminds me of my aunt from Texas, and looks absolutely incredible in a tight pair of blue jeans. Hey, Connie Ray: Call me.
Don't get me wrong: I've got a few criticisms. Some of the songs made me really uncomfortable. The best song is this wild number ("Joy of the Lord") where they turn the truck into a beat box, but the show ruins it with this abrupt transition into a cheesy political song ("Stronger") about coming back from war, which feels ham-fisted. The marine who sings it (David Larsen) looks tough — and wears a Toadies T-shirt (nice touch) — but once he starts hitting high harmonies and sobbing about feeling lost it doesn't ring true. The same goes for the Mexican guy's (Jon Rua) song about life as an immigrant — though that number has an awesome powerslide across the stage, which is always a good idea. Watching this kind of melodramatic stuff is like seeing a 7th grader get spanked in the supermarket. I just feel embarrassed for them.
And then there's Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster). This guy is the star of the movie and the main player on stage. His wardrobe (and all the wardrobes, frankly) is perfect. His walk, his talk — everything — is spot on. A couple of his best lines from the film are cut from the musical, but with so many great ones to choose from, it doesn't really matter. Foster must have spent some time in Texas hanging out with Benny to nail this one, but the character falls apart a bit when he starts to sing. I wanted him to channel some Stevie Ray Vaughan or a little Allman Brothers in his voice, but unfortunately there's a little too much Jonas Brothers. Sorry to be harsh, Hunter.
Those few things aside, I really had a good time. It's fun and exciting and I never got bored. Seeing a show like this really gets me pumped up for all the other great stuff you'd never think they could turn into a rad Broadway performance. Give me Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead or Heavy Metal Parking Lot and I will be shirtless in the front row, screaming at the top of my lungs. Not kidding.