This past Sunday I travelled on down to La Jolla, CA to see the matinee of the just announced Broadway transfer of Hands on a Hardbody at La Jolla Playhouse. I was already anticipating this show because the majority of the cast member are well-known Broadway and TV names. Also, I was familiar with the story this musical is based off. Plus, the overall concept of what this show brings to stage is enough to cure anyone’s curiosity. After seeing the show, and having a nice drive home to let simmer what I had just witnessed, I can confidently say that this show will receive several Tony nominations as a result of the brilliant creative team, and the phenomenal cast.
Hands on a Hardbody is a new musical based off the 1997 documentary of the real-life contest of the same name. The plot: simple. 10 contestants show up to a Nissan car dealership in Longview, Texas. They put their hands on a Nissan truck. Last one with their hand still on it wins the truck. They are given 15 minute breaks every 6 hours; however, other than that, at least one hand has to be touching the truck. That is it. Now, the usual review consists of highlighted leads and memorable performances followed commentary on the technical aspects and creative decisions. However, with this cast and show there is no weak link so let’s skip that part. The following will be a listing of each of the 15 performers with a short blurb as to why they were perfect for this show.
Keith Carradine (JD Drew)- an endearing portrayal of a man who has pride in his town, and lovingly sings his act 2 solo, “Used To Be”
Allison Case (Kelli Mangrum)- brings a joyous voice with a hopeful presence in a timid love story between her an equally adorable Jay Armstrong Johnson (Greg Wilhote) which comes to a musical highlight in their duet “I’m Gone” and ends with a heroic rescue that I won’t go further into for fear of ruining key plot points.
Hunter Foster (Benny Perkins)- is perfectly cast as this story’s leading man, and is more than deserving of a Tony nomination for his performance. He’s the bad guy that you love to hate and love to love. His renditions of “Hunt with the Big Dogs” and “God Answered My Prayers” shows this Broadway veteran’s versatility and talent in ways no one has ever seen before.
David Larsen (Chris Alvaro) is one of the most powerful pieces of this show, playing a marine just back from his 3rd Iraqi tour. What makes his part so impactful, besides his tear-jerking song, “Stronger”, is the fact that the writers and Larsen portray the character as a suffering military man; but without being too preachy about it. It annoys me when theatre artists force a certain emotion down the audience’s throat. The feelings should happen organically and left up to the audience to decide for themselves what to feel with the dialogue presented. The writers and Larsen do a Tony worthy job of bringing every bit of sympathy and pride to this role without forcing it. Bravo.
Jacob Ming Trent (Ronald McGowan) is a remarkably strong presenced man who shows off his pipes in his turn at “My Problem Right There” He acts as a great comedy actor as well, keeping the pacing of his scenes alive and with character.
Mary Gordon Murray (Virginia Drew) plays JD’s wife with warmth and depth, which is hard to do since she has the least amount of stage time. Her duet, “Alone With Me,” opposite Carradine is a misplaced song; but nevertheless, a beautiful song. Maybe just shifted around in the show a bit would do it better justice.
Jim Newman (Mike Ferris) plays the greedy Nissan dealership salesman and does a fine job of playing such a greasy character. His upbeat duet, “Burn That Bridge” with lust-interest Heather Stovall (played by a big voiced and memorable Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) is not only a great plot twist, but a great showcase for these two vocal geniuses.
Connie Ray (Cindy Barnes) has a great comedic part of utilizing every bit of comic blocking and delivery to bring her part a degree of likability that isn’t common for her genre of character. Here you have a stereo-typical racist, Texan dealership employee who assumes the worst in immigrants and the best in whites. However, you can never truly hate her, but only laugh as she epitomizes at least one person we all know like that.
Jon Rua (Jesus Pena) has one of the most poignant, attention getting performances I have ever seen on stage. His solo, “Born in Laredo” speaks volumes as to how people’s ignorance isn’t easily shaken for those whom receive the ignorant comments. His act 2 scene in which he “sees” his dog is a heart breaking moment in the piece, and his exit thereafter is deserving of several rounds of applause.
Janis Curtis (Dale Soules) and stage husband William Youmans (Don Curtis/Dr. Stokes) have some great bits as you stereo-typical trailer couple just trying to win a truck. Youmans sings a cute ballad “A Little Somethin’ Somethin’” which shows the love between a man and a wife is all that matters, and still exists in some parts of America.
Scott Wakefield (Frank Nugent) is perfectly cast as the radio show host who is commentating on the contest. But he’s not left out to dry by just talking. His rendition of the title song is an upbeat, clap your hands, wonderful tribute to musical-country music. Plus Wakefield playing his own guitar for his song is a tribute to the man’s talent.
Okay, so I lied. I sort of saved the best for last. Keala Settle (playing a die hard Jesus loving woman, Norma Valverde) has re-defined what a show stopping number is in musical theatre. Her heavenly high belting vocals in the act 1 stomp-like accapella number, “Joy of the Lord” not only received two full waves of applause but also brought several audience members to a standing ovation! Can you say Tony, Tony, Tony, Tony (ala The Producers) This song also highlights the staging of Benjamin Millepied and music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green.
So there’s a break down of Hands on a Hardbody, casting-wise. The set was great because it bled out to the theater. We were surrounded by Nissan dealership signs and car flags, etc. And on stage you have tires on racks and the truck itself. Simple, yet gets the job done. Thank you to director Neil Pepe for choosing the right career for he is a talented director; and to the creative team that brought this story to musical life. If you are in New York next spring, you better fill up your tank and scoot on over to see this show! You will NOT regret it.