Who turns documentaries into musicals? Why, Doug Wright, that's who. In collaboration with Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, Wright transformed the the cult documentary Grey Gardens into an admittedly flawed but nonetheless heartrending musical. So it's certainly possible to find the human emotion and lyricism that a musical requires in the context of a documentary.
Unfortunately, Wright hasn't been nearly as successful in turning the 1997 film "Hands on a Hardbody" by S.R. Bindler into a compelling musical drama. The film tells the story of a group of people who enter a contest to win a pickup truck. All they have to do is put their hands on the truck and keep them there. The last one standing wins the truck.
How do you stage something that is, by definition, static? You put the truck on casters, or some sort of mechanism that allows the cast to move the car around the stage, which is what director Neil Pepe has done here. This allows for quite a wide range of physical arrangements, although from my seat in the far left of the front row, there were a lot of moments in the show that were blocked from my view.
But it's not the physical conceit that makes Hands on a Hardbody essentially motionless. It's the lack of fully-fledged characterizations and a score in which one number seems, with a few notable exceptions, indistinguishable from the next. The film apparently brings the struggles of these often-desperate contestants to vivid life. I haven't seen the film, but the musical Hands on a Hardbody would seem far less successful in that respect. The show is certainly never less than amiable, but it never quite crosses the line into engaging.
The score only periodically rises above the desultory nature of the book. The music here is by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, the latter of whom is from something called Phish, which I guess is a band. Green also wrote the lyrics. There's a genuinely rousing gospel number for one of the contestants who is a devoted Christian (Keala Settle). In additon, Hunter Foster, as the antihero who won the contest two years prior, gets a truly kick-ass 11 0'clock number called "God Answered My Prayers." Otherwise the songs seem to fade into the colorless, featureless billboard that serves as the show's sole backdrop.
Hands on a Hardbody doesn't have nearly the dynamism, nor the emotional pull, of other last-man-standing shows like A Chorus Line or The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. As I watched the show, it seemed that by the time I would up starting to care about one of the contestants, that person would soon be eliminated. And the character who winds up winning seemed to me to be the least interesting person on stage.
The show does feature a few genuinely moving moments, mostly because of the strong cast, including Foster and Settle, as well as Dale Soules and William Youmans. But their efforts are hampered by Wright's treatment of the characters as types: the redneck couple, the soldier with PTSD, the misunderstood Mexican, the two young people who predictably fall in love, the trampy mall queen who's secretly having it off with the manager of the dealership, etc. And yet it wasn't so much that the characters felt shallow as, based on what was there, I wasn't particularly interested in going any deeper.
For me, the real nail in the show's coffin was the finale, which quickly dissipated whatever emotional capital the show had accrued. The last number features a barrage of facile aphorisms that tipped the show over the edge from cloying into irritating: "If you want something, keep your hands on it." Um...that's it? This whole sad affair basically comes down to perseverance and the triumph of the human spirit? But wait, there's more: "Don't let go," "The contest goes on," "We're all on the truck," etc.
Spare me the bromides.