Broadway

Hands on a Hard Body review

It’s A Chorus Line for car owners in this short-lived new musical that can sadly only be described as a royal flop. Maybe it’s the no-name cast (ok, Hunter Foster is a bit of a name), maybe it’s the inscrutable title (if only the show was actually about what it sounds like it’s about) or maybe it’s just the reductive nature of the plot (ten people keep their hands on a pickup truck to win it). Either way, the crowds stayed away in droves and the show only ran seven weeks. All this, and it wasn’t half as bad as last year’s Leap of Faith.

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Based on the 1997 documentary, the scenario seems even more topical in today’s economy. The desperation of the ten chosen contestants is matched by the tension of the dealership owners trying to convert the interest of the onlookers into cash sales. Doug Wright’s book wastes no time setting up the situation, and features characters that are just interesting enough not to be stereotypes.

Amanda Green’s lyrics reveal the characters’ inner thoughts to a greater extent than most musicals, with Green and Trey Anastasio’s music providing an authentic American sound to suit the Texan setting. “Joy of the Lord” is a rousing act one number, flashing lights and all. “Used to Be” is a bittersweet ode to the malling of America. “God Answered My Prayers” is another rousing religious anthem, appropriate for the people and place.

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Director Neil Pepe keeps energy high, and has helped the cast find clearly delineated characters that strike an effective balance between recognisable and engaging. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s efforts are limited by the “hands on” rule, and although this is occasionally overcome with dream sequence/inner voice numbers that are freed from the car constraint, the dancing never really takes flight to anything like Trujillo’s amazing work on Memphis.

Costume designer Susan Hilferty of Wicked fame is closer to Kansas than Oz here, and achieves a range of looks that are theatrical while still being realistic and believable for the characters. Christine Jones’ scenic design is suitably down to earth, and is frequently spruced up by Kevin Adams’ terrific lighting design.

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It is hard to pick standouts from the ten central characters. Each gave a committed, believable performance, and each made the most of their moments in the spotlight. It is a credit to all concerned that it was not possible to predict the winner of the truck. Not because it was a surprise twist, but because each had their personal motivations and flaws, and the writing in no way telegraphed the final result. The epilogue during the final number brought proceedings to a satisfying close.

I could not have imagined paying the full price of $142 for Hands on A Hard Body ($32 for a rush ticket was just fine). The production may have fared better in the less cut-throat, less expensive world of Off-Broadway. I guess we will never know, now that the producers have taken their hands off the truck.

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Hands on A Hard Body plays until this Saturday 13 April 2013 at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

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