“Hands on a Hardbody”: What Did the Critics Think?

“Hands on a Hardbody,” the musical story of 10 hard-luck Texans vying to win a Nissan truck -- the last contestant with a hand on the $22,000 beauty gets to drive it home -- opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

Based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, "Hardbody" has garnered attention in no small part because of its unusual pedigree: the music is by Amanda Green (“Bring It On”) and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio.

Among the 10 Southerners eyeing the “Hardbody” are Keith Carradine, as a recently unemployed oil rig worker; Hunter Foster, as a bitter past-champion whose wife drove off with his previous truck; and Keala Settle, as a religious woman who believes her faith will lead her to victory.

Here’s what some of the New York critics had to say:

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: “This scrappy, sincere new musical brings a fresh, handmade feeling to Broadway, which mostly traffics in the machine tooled. ... If the writing occasionally wears its social concerns on its sleeve, the score cuts loose. Mr. Anastasio and Ms. Green have taken care to scrub the music -- and the orchestrations -- of the canned sound that blasts from the speakers at most Broadway musicals.”

Clark Collis, Entertainment Weekly: “There is much to enjoy here, from Hunter Foster's bullying portrayal of a two-time car-winning champion -- if that’s the right word -- to Keala Settle’s turn as the desperate, God-fearing Norma. On Settle’s showcase track, the gospel song ‘Joy of the Lord,’ the cast utilizes the show’s main prop, an actual truck, to nice 'Stomp'-like effect.”

Brian Scott Lipton, Cititour: “Cynical audience members can be forgiven for wondering if the new Broadway musical ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ will be, much like its subject matter, an endurance test. ... Fortunately, the tuneful score by Trey Anastasio and Broadway baby Amanda Green, the clever choreography of Sergio Trujillo, and, above all, the considerable talents of the cast make the time go by faster than you might imagine.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: “The first number (‘Human Drama Kind of Thing’) says it all: the rest of the country may be in slow recovery from a recession, but here in East Texas, where everybody’s out of work and in debt, they’re still stuck in the depths of the Great Depression. So while this truck may look like a truck, ‘It is much more than a truck.’ In this part of Texas, it can also define your character, testify to your manhood and affirm your human value.”

Jesse Green, Vulture: “Something happens near the end of the first act: The Bible-clutcher (Keala Settle, sublime) gets the giggles. This leads to a bravura laughing aria and, eventually, a mostly a cappella gospel number called ‘Joy of the Lord’ that successfully combines the personal and communal and lifts the show into musical-theater heaven. It hasn’t much to do with the truck, but it’s daring and thrilling and wins some sort of contest, hands down.”

Joe Dziemainowicz, New York Daily News: “With its collection of desperate competitors, ‘Hardbody’ has been likened to ‘A Chorus Line’ and its ‘God, I hope I get it’ dancers. Unlike that game-changing musical, Broadway’s new arrival from the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego lacks the efficient yet incisive psychology and soul-searching. .... If only the makers had gotten under the characters’ hoods, where their emotions rev. Instead of tuning out, I would have been more inclined to buckle up and, well, hold on.”

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