Review: New Line's 'Hands On A Hardbody' Puts More than Four on the Floor

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Henry David Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s certainly true of the characters in “Hands on a Hardbody,” the wildly entertaining musical currently playing at New Line Theatre. Based on the true story of a contest held in Plainview, Texas, where a lucky few get the opportunity to win a new hardbody truck by seeing who can keep their hands on it the longest in a contest that stretches on for days rather than hours. Participants drop out one by one, often due to health concerns or emotional necessity. The contest might be seen as a metaphor for life: He who remains standing the longest, wins. There is nothing to lose by playing (except your sanity), but everything to gain.

"Hands on a Hardbody" Courtesy of New Line Theatre

“Hands on a Hardbody”
Courtesy of New Line Theatre

Each of the contestants is down on their luck in some way (which explains their willingness to participate in the ultimately grueling competition), and the truck represents to each so much more than a simple set of wheels. For one contestant, it’s her children’s education; for another, it represents the fulfillment of his lifelong dream to drive to LA to be a stunt man. Still another sees the truck as recovering from abandonment by his wife (who took the truck he won in the same contest a couple of years previous). As the play progresses, the audience learns about each character through their interactions with the other contestants and their songs.

Anna Skidis in "Hands on a Hardbody" Courtesy New Line

Anna Skidis in “Hands on a Hardbody”
Courtesy New Line Theatre

The tender and often funny show comes off as the little show that could. There is nothing huge about it, except it’s packed with emotion and originality, and is a true treat for seasoned or new theater goers alike. Even the cynical will enjoy it. The clever show comes courtesy of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright with music by Tony nominees Trey Anastasio (from the jam band Phish) with sublimely clever lyrics by Amanda Green (“High Fidelity,” “Bring it On)”, who has perhaps coined the best rhyme in musical theater with “turnip” and “burn up.” The songs cover a vast array of styles, including country, rock, pop, R&B, gospel, and rockabilly without a clunker in the bunch. The orchestra is exemplary, led by conductor Sue Goldford.

Jeffrey Wright in "Hands on a Hardbody" Courtesy New Line Theatre

Jeffrey Wright in “Hands on a Hardbody”
Courtesy New Line Theatre

The acting is top notch throughout. Todd Schaefer, Alison Helmer, Jeffrey Wright, Anna Skidis, Luke Steingruby, Ryan Foizey, Marcy Wiegert, Cindy Duggan, Keith Thompson, Margeau Baue Steinau, Mike Dowdy and Taylor Pietz, Reynaldo Arceno, Marshall Jennings and Zachary Allen Farmer each create believable characters in whom the audience invests and all the songs are sung with deep emotion and complete commitment.

There are many highlights that could be mentioned—like Anna Skidis’ long and hilarious laughing fit, or how she sung the dickens out of the show’s only gospel number, “Joy of the Lord.”; or pretty much any of the individual song performances, like Todd Schaefer as the oldest contestant singing, “Used to Be,” his lament about the changing world; or the terrific “Born in Laredo,” Reynaldo Arceno’s defiant response to being considered a foreigner—but there isn’t room for them all.

aylor Pietz in "Hands on a Hardbody" Courtesy New Line Theatre

Taylor Pietz in “Hands on a Hardbody”
Courtesy New Line Theatre

Ditto the performances. We could go on about how snake-in-the-grass Jeffrey Wright brilliantly underplayed a scene to maximum comic effect; or comment on Marshall Jennings’ easy likability; or everything Taylor Pietz does; or maybe how upstage, scene-stealing Zachary Allen Farmer conducts the “how many bites does it take to eat a corndog” experiment (the answer is two—it takes two bites to eat a corndog), but we won’t. Suffice it to say there are many things to like about the performances in this production

Director Scott Miller keeps the pacing just right, and handles the conundrum of how to get people in the right place for scenes when they are glued to a truck, without the benefit of a turntable. The cohesiveness and overall quality of everything about it is a testament to his directing. And all that needs to be said about Rob Lippert’s set is that on the stage of the second floor theater, there is a shiny, new truck. You’ll want to get your hands on it.

It’s bizarre that the show managed to last only 28 performances on Broadway, in spite of racking up nine Drama Desk Award nominations. Perhaps this clever and heartfelt show—that treats its characters with the utmost respect—never belonged on the Great White Way. It definitely belongs at New Line.

“Hands On A Hardbody” continues at New Line Theatre through June 21. For tickets and information visit the New Line website or call 314-773-6526.

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