A dozen strangers stand touching a pick-up truck, and the last one to remove his or her hand gets it for free: that’s the premise of Hands on a Hard Body, a new musical based on a 1997 documentary but wisely set today; in these recession-scarred times, with so many so desperate for any kind of leg up, there’s never a question as to why the contestants would be so unwilling to let go.
Hands boasts two elements that seem quietly radical on today’s Broadway: it isn’t based on a familiar or marketable property, and the songs borrow heavily from country and gospel traditions, two deeply American genres frequently ghettoized in musical theater. The show plays fresher than it probably should—the music (in part by Phish’s Trey Anastasio) is, with few exceptions, easily forgettable, characterized by the kind of obvious rhymes that spoil punchlines for even first-time listeners.
It also struggles structurally. By putting several contestants on essentially equal footing, too much time is spend on introductory songs, and the myriad themes offered by modern Texas—immigration, education, religion, corporate homogenization—get boiled down to insights along the line of “racism exists” or, “did you know veterans experience PTSD?” (The choreography is by Memphis’ Sergio Trujillo, who at least seems to have relished the challenge posed by having his dancers anchored in place.)
The lack of a central protagonist prolongs the mystery of who’ll pocket the keys, but at the expense of the audience caring who does. Only one song, where the cast uses the truck as percussion, takes advantages of the self-imposed limitations and produces something thrilling.
Given that most characters are defined by one number, it’s tough to gauge the performances, though Jacob Ming-Trent and Keala Settle are highlights, delivering show-stoppers that are both soulful and brassy fun. Unfortunately, the closest things to leads are disappointing, with Keith Carradine leaving a number of key questions unanswered (Just how bad is his health/marriage?) and Hunter Foster a frustratingly one dimensional antagonist.
So few modern musicals deal with issues of class or poverty that Hands on a Hard Body, for all its flaws, does serve as a corrective. Few of its insights get past first gear, but when it works, it effectively demonstrates that in order for capitalism to work, people have to play by the rules.