THEATER REVIEW: La Jolla Playhouse stages world premiere of “Hands On A Hardbody”

What kind of lunatic would volunteer to stand for hours – nay, days – with several other people, each with one hand on a pickup truck, in hopes of winning it by being the last person standing – and touching – the vehicle?

It turns out that lots of people in Texas would, and in 1997 S.R. Bindler and Kevin Morris made a documentary about a group of people who did just that.

Now La Jolla Playhouse offers the world premiere of the new musical “Hands On A Hardbody,” commissioned by the theater and based on that film. Neil Pepe directs the show; Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) wrote the book. The music is by Amanda Green and Phish musician Trey Anastasio.

The creators visited Longview, Texas (about 60 miles east of the Dallas suburb where Wright grew up) to interview the real eight contestants. Then Wright added a few characters.

The group now includes Keith Carradine’s J.D. Drew, the oldest contestant, injured on an oil rig; Norma Valverde (Keala Settle), with a big voice, great gospel technique, and a conviction that God is on her side; previous winner Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster), determined to repeat; Iraq veteran Chris Alvaro (David Larsen), still nursing the emotional wounds of war; Jesús Peña (Jon Rua), son of immigrants, who needs the truck to finance his college education; ex-cheerleader Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), who figures out how to do her makeup one-handed; Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Kelli (Allison Case), young kids with dreams of getting out of Texas, who make a tentative connection.

Running the contest are Nissan employees Mike (Jim Newman) and Cindy (Connie Ray), who have a big stake in the result.

But the star of the show – a black Nissan tricked out by La Jolla’s Nissan Design Center – literally takes center stage. They’ve trimmed 2,800 pounds from its innards, replaced all internal wiring with a wireless system controlled from the booth, tossed in a battery-powered speaker and four wireless microphones (so it can be played like a percussion instruction) – and put it on casters for easy movement by the cast.

Wright has done a good job of developing the characters and explaining the drive, need or desire that makes entering such a contest possible. The problem is that the premise doesn’t allow for much dramatic action – or movement, on penalty of disqualification. Exhaustion sets in, contestants collapse, tempers flare and all this group can do is hang tight and sing.

No complaints about the cast, though. These seasoned Broadway performers wring every bit of drama out of the script. Some are blessed with great songs, such as Rua’s Jesús, who sings “Born in Laredo,” a great piece about ethnic profiling. And settle’s Norma brings the house down with “Joy of the Lord,” a gospel barnburner whose reprise even calls for audience participation. Mary Gordon Murray, playing JD’s wife Virginia, really shines on the wife’s lament “Alone with Me.”

Neil Pepe gets points for being willing to direct this odd piece, which allows for very little direction.

The show gets points for technical excellence (aside from the car) as well. Christine Jones’ set is necessarily minimalist, but Kevin Adams has designed some fine lighting and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design is excellent as well.

But it’s the show’s premise that keeps it from being riveting. Shortening its two and a half hour length would help. But as it stands, “Hands On A Hardbody” will likely interest mainly reality TV fans and Texans.

Details

“Hands on a Hardbody” plays through June 17 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call 858-550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.