NEW YORK — Despite the salacious title, the hardbody at the core of the newest Broadway musical has neither pliable tissue nor a pulse nor anything sexy, really, to return to those who stretch out their desperate hands for a feel of its sharp corners. It's a big, shiny, red Nissan truck, plopped right down in the center of the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, which is a long way, in all kinds of ways, from the show's setting in Longview, Texas. This Texas-style ride, and New York choreographer's nightmare, dominates these entire theatrical proceedings, visually and metaphorically, which is what Doug Wright, the book writer of the admirably gutsy "Hands on a Hardbody" clearly intended.
Auto dealers have known for years that cars can be sold as objects of desire — or fulfillers of dreams or even repairers of self-esteem. And when "Hands on a Hardbody," which has the advantage of being unlikely fodder for a musical, is probing those themes, and exploring the way small-town America has been forced to surrender its soul and dignity to out-of-town invaders, it cruises down the interstate with a refreshing interest in Red State America, far more foreign on Broadway than London or Paris.
The generally likable, small-scaled and well-meaning show — which plies some of the same themes as "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," the movie and play about a grueling dance marathon — revolves around an endurance contest staged by a car dealer. Be the last person with your hands on the truck and you can take it home. Let go and you're road kill. The contest has a real referent: the musical is based on a documentary film by S.R .Bindler. But in musical form, it plays out as a compilation of different ethnic and working-class types all struggling to be the last man or woman standing, if that could be said to be winning anything of worth.
The main problem with the piece (aside from some lyrics that feel forced and obvious) is that you probably could guess the casting breakdown without seeing the show. There's a young Latino guy (played by Jon Rua) worried that everyone thinks he's an illegal; an aging good old boy (Keith Carradine); a tough old bird (Dale Soules); a pretty restaurant hostess with access to certain advantages (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone); a buttoned-down former Marine (David Larsen), a black guy with a big heart (Jacob Ming-Trent) a couple of goofy 20-ish kids who can fall in love (Allison Case and Jay Armstrong Johnson); and, filling the slot of the mystical character every show and movie needs, a driven Latina woman with a spiritual core (Keala Settle, who is terrific nonetheless). The main antagonist, played by Hunter Foster, is a mercurial-but-troubled divorced dude who has won before and has a sardonic state of mind.
Most of the show unfolds like an elimination-oriented reality show. Contestants sing of their dreams (which allows the director, Neil Pepe and the choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, to remove their actors' hands from the darn truck, there being only so many numbers one can do with an appendage stuck in the same spot). And then they start to drop — popping back for a few recriminations, even as we also see some shenanigans in and around the dealer's office. The piece is not without interest and is quite enjoyable throughout: Trujillo has some zesty one-handed dance numbers, the actors bring a good deal of truth and, more important, the plotting feels far more original than the character types.
One wishes, time and again, that the show could quit worrying about offering a Good Old Texan time for the folks (which fights the main theme) and commit more fully to its darker ideas of struggle in an America, where the recession has lingered most in its small towns. The show is very uneven. At times, you feel like you're in the territory of reality TV, whereas in other moments, you feel the force of the potent metaphor of desperate Americans voluntarily lashing themselves to a Japanese-designed vehicle. In the best moments, you both recognize and feel for these characters, at least when they run away from their cliched birth.
The best and sweetest number in a serviceable and melodic country-rockabilly score composed by Trey Anastasio (of Phish fame) and Amanda Green (also the broad-strokes lyricist), has a wistful refrain composed entirely of chains. "Walmart's, Walgreens, Wendy's, Applebees, Starbucks, Stuckey's, Best Buy," this terrific song goes, lamenting how all small towns now look the same. It's not the only musical gem: there is a forceful empowerment number called "Stronger" that's fabulously well performed by a very solid cast, highlighted by Settle, whose performance is surely of premium octane in a show that can't quite decide whether it should ignite the gasoline in that fetishized truck.
"Hands on a Hardbody" plays on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Call 877-250-2929 or visit handsonahardbody.com