If you live in East Texas and you don’t own a truck, you’re a loser – or so believe the contestants vying to win a hardbody truck, courtesy of the Floyd King Nissan Dealership in Longview. None of them wants to be a loser, and to avoid being one, he or she must keep at least one gloved hand on the giveaway truck at all times (minus 15-minute breaks). Last one standing and still touching wins.
That’s ostensibly the story of Hands on a Hardbody, the world-premiere musical at La Jolla Playhouse created by Doug Wright (book), with music and lyrics by Amanda Green and Phish guitarist/composer Trey Anastasio. But it doesn’t take very long, or any stretch of the imagination, to perceive that the win-the-truck contestants, many of them down-on-their-luck dreamers, are competing for something much more. The truck, on the stage at all times and rightfully considered by the producers the musical’s “16th character,” is a four-wheeled metaphor. (It’s a shame that the show’s closing number includes an explanation to that effect, one that wasn’t at all necessary.)
Under the direction of Neil Pepe, a game cast led by Keith Carradine (his singing voice still as poignant as it was thirtysomething years ago in “Nashville”) illuminates Anastasio and Green’s likable score, which flits from country to gospel to power balladry. The contestants’ individual stories – each gets at least one showcase moment – unfold a la A Chorus Line. In that case, we peeked inside the souls of Broadway dancers. In Hands on a Hardbody, which is based on a true story previously told in a 1997 documentary, our view is of 10 very different people whose aspirations are less grandiose but no less real.
A lengthy but lively first act, distinguished by a percussive, Stomp-like sequence with the truck as “instrument,” is followed by a second act that grapples with everything from bigotry to the scars of the Iraq War. Then Hands on a Hardbody turns wide-eyed, solemnly saluting “The Tryers” and wrapping a feel-good ribbon around the only in-America irony of 10 Texans trying to win a Japanese truck made in Tennessee.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.