Hands on a Hardbody

This new musical at the La Jolla Playhouse, based on the documentary about an unusual Texas contest to win a truck, could easily end up on Broadway.

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Keala Settle, Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Keala Settle, Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine
© Kevin Berne

The current musical landscape is littered with shows — good and bad — derived from well-known films. Hands on a Hardbody, the winning new musical making a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, takes a slightly different tack. It uses the 1997 documentary of the same name, about a Longview, Texas car dealership’s endurance contest in which the winner would drive off the lot with a fully-loaded truck, as its source material.

While it might seem like watching 10 people standing around a truck might get boring, the result proves to be a very lively and well-crafted production — one that could drive itself into the winner’s circle on Broadway if it so chooses.

Most of the contestants are unemployed or under-employed in the Texas economy of the mid-1990’s. JD (Keith Carradine) is competing, contrary to his doctor’s orders and his wife’s (Mary Gordon Murray) concerns, after falling off an oil rig and being forced into mandatory retirement. Cocksure Benny (Hunter Foster) is seeking to win another truck after his wife took his earlier winnings and drove off in it with a new man. Ex-Marine Chris (David Larsen) is attempting to find a way to reconnect to his wife and son after three tours of duty in Iraq.

There’s also Jesus (Jon Rua), who hopes to win then sell the truck and use the money for tuition to veterinary school; Kelli (Allison Case), who would like to be able to travel to some of the places she sees on the UPS parcels she processes; Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson), who harbors dreams of moving to Hollywood to become a stuntman; and Norma (Keala Settle), who has prayer circles behind her at several churches throughout Texas and feels she’s on a mission from God. Desperate for sales, car dealer Mike (Jim Newman) even has a ringer in the contest — in the young hot body of Heather (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone).

With only one 15-minute break every six hours, the grueling Texas heat starts to take its toll. One by one, the contestants start to fall, beginning with Ronald (Jacob Ming-Trent) whose diet of Snickers bars fails him. After days of sleep deprivation, a few even experience delusions and in their delirium find their hands off the truck — until a champion is finally crowned.

Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright has crafted a solid book full of flesh-and-blood characters and true-to life-dialogue, making us care about who will be able to keep their eyes (and hands) on the prize long enough to emerge victorious.

Amanda Green’s lyrics are often simplistic and predictable and her rhymes at times questionable, but, overall, they fit these characters and their situations, while the music by Green and Phish’s Trey Anastasio is mostly in the appropriately twangy country western motif. However, there are some lovely ballads and one showstopping gospel number, “Joy of the Lord,” delivered with rafter-shaking power by Settle.

The direction by Neil Pepe and the musical staging by Benjamin Millepied create an easy fluidity to the show, and Christine Jones’ spare set gives the impression of the big open Texas landscape, especially as simply lit by Kevin Adams. All of it makes this Hardbody easy to watch.

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