"Hands on a Hardbody," the new musical based on S.R. Bindler's 1997 documentary film about a nutty endurance contest at a Texas auto dealership, pulls off something most pundits would have considered impossible today: This is a Red State musical that Blue State audiences won't hate themselves for enjoying.
Yes, even a coastal denizen such as myself, who frets about the melting ice caps and all those polar bears floating forlornly out to sea, got worked up about which of the economically strapped characters was going to win the midnight blue pickup truck that would be a godsend even with gas prices soaring. (Although it's not overly explicit, the time period has been updated to the present day.)
The show, which had its world premiere Saturday at La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of Neil Pepe, faltered at times during its test run, particularly in the second act. It's not entirely clear that the musical needs roughly 21/2 hours to tell a real-life tale the film covered in just over 90 minutes. The competition to see who can keep one gloved hand on the truck the longest should be a marathon only for the characters.
But there's a refreshing emotional simplicity to this story that's been genially adapted to the stage by Doug Wright (Pulitzer Prize-winningauthor of "I Am My Own Wife" and book writer for the musical "Grey Gardens"). And the score by Trey Anastasio (founding member of the band Phish) and Amanda Green (lyricist for the short-lived Broadway musical"High Fidelity" and co-lyricist for the strained "Bring It On: The Musical") blends rock, gospel, folk and country music, all of which is immediately accessible without sounding canned.
I feel about "Hands on a Hardbody" much as I felt about "Once," the current Broadway hit that sprang from an almost as unlikely cinematic source: chiefly, that it's a relief to encounter a musical that isn't afraid to follow its own idiosyncratic vision. The folksy low-key aesthetic is especially seductive in these days of overproduced spectacles. If the show could rid itself of the sprawl that causes the momentum to sag noticeably in the second half, "Hardbody" could be an offbeat winner.
One by one the characters come out and explain what winning a truck would mean to them. The lyrics Green provides for the opening number, "It's a Human Drama Thing," won't win her the Stephen Sondheim Award for cleverness, but there's a satisfying directness that suits the music and the moment: "Everybody's broke here/Tryin' to make ends meet/Pay a debt back, had a setback/Got to get back on our feet."
This contest isn't about a handout. It's about coping with hard times through resiliency, determination and a persevering bladder. Or as Norma (Keala Settle), the stout religious Latina puts it, "Lord shows me strength I didn't know I had."
"So anyone with the nerve — the tenacity — can drive away with the American dream?" asks a radio DJ (Scott Wakefield) after the rules are explained. In Texas, the American dream apparently isn't a house but a hot set of wheels with a 16-valve, four-cylinder engine.
Later on, J.D. (Keith Carradine), an older contestant who lost his job after falling off an oil rig, can't help taking in the irony that they're depriving themselves of sleep and sanity, all for a Nissan truck. "Funny, ain't it," he says. "American dream, a Japanese car?"
The attritional, last-man-standing structure of the work poses the biggest dramatic challenge. How do you keep an audience from wanting to fast-forward to the moment when the ninth person drops and the victor is handed the keys?
Friendships develop, notably between a previous contest winner Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster), who's full of advice on how to avoid cramping and cope with the heat, and J.D., whose bad back seems only to be steeling his resolve. There's even a romance, though it's rather tangential, an endearing bond between two Hollywood dreamers (played by Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case), both of whom just may win something more valuable than a $22,000 truck. Although it needs to be stressed that this musical isn't exactly bubbling over with fairy tale endings for any of the characters; winners and losers all seem to be in the same realistic boat.
There's an Iraq war veteran (David Larsen), a worn-out mother of six (Dale Soules), a former cheerleader (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), a Mexican American whose citizenship has to be defended (Jon Rua) and an African American with a dangerous chocolate bar addiction (Jacob Ming Trent). They're good company, but strangers to one another, they talk at each other for the most part rather than to each other.
Although the contestants are allotted 15-minute breaks every six hours, as the slippery sales manager Mike Ferris (Jim Newman) explains at the start, they're mostly glued to the truck, so don't expect dazzling Bob Fosse-style numbers. The musical staging by Benjamin Millepied (a boldface name since the film "Black Swan" brought him and Natalie Portman together) is appropriately measured. The vehicle slides across Christine Jones' car dealership set (which is given a vaguely futuristic gloss via Kevin Adams' lighting), releasing the production from its self-imposed stasis. The characters are at least free to undulate, if not break out in wild dance moves, without risking disqualification.
Why the heck, you might be wondering by now, would anyone try to make a musical out of such stubbornly resistant material? Yet "Hands on a Hardbody" succeeds in spite of its shackles — maybe even because of them. The show, which doesn't have the option of falling back on glitzy razzmatazz (although it does have a crackling orchestra under the music direction of Zachary Dietz), has to rely on its heart and humanity to motor it along. And in Carradine and Settle, the production has two performers capable of anchoring a satisfying emotional journey.
Carradine brings a stoic dignity to his portrayal of J.D., who must gently fend off the concerns of his legitimately anxious wife (Mary Gordon Murray) to prove to himself that he's not through yet. Settle's Norma is anything but stoic — especially when she's delivering the rousing "Joy of the Lord" number. But she cuts just as moving a figure, and even the secular will likely find something uplifting in her faith, which is too genuine to depend on answered prayers.
This "Hardbody" could still use an overhaul, but I wouldn't be surprised to find it parked on Broadway in the not-too-distant future.
'Hands on a Hardbody'
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 17.
Tickets: $42 to $85
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or LaJollaPlayhouse.org