Ever wonder what a musical composed by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio would sound like? On the off-chance that you have, Hands on a Hardbody should put any such wonder to rest. Set at a car dealership during a promotional competition of endurance, this musical is about as moving as the stationary Nissan pick-up truck it's centered around.
Seeking to represent a portrait of America, the creators of this musical have instead captured a snapshot of one isolated, little corner of a vast and diverse nation and tried sticking it in a frame far too large for its dimensions.
Cast members are to be given credit for making do with the little they're tendered. Dale Soules offers some personality as the hardscrabble Janis, as does Hunter Foster as the jaded and jeering Benny. Both Soules and Foster give the most-dimensioned performances of the production, successfully overcoming the thin qualities of these book-written archetypes. Both Jacob Ming-Trent and Keala Settle belt out with powerful voices, Jon Rua gives an energetic effort, and Keith Carradine makes for a soothing and somewhat bland presence in the role of JD, a character whose troubles are more discussed than felt or fleshed out on the stage.
Phish fans hoping for some reminiscent sounds from composer Anastasio will likely be surprised by the country-centric qualities of the music. While there are similar simplicities to previous songs, this is a departure from Anastasio's jam-band compositions and bares some of the recurring pitfalls that seem to plague rock musicians who try their hand at musical theater. Trying to fit the perceived mold of the genre while incorporating their own distinctive touch, the two objectives collide and defeat one another. Any fun that came naturally to Anastasio in Phish songs is lost here; with the exception of a few numbers, such as "I'm Gone," the score falls hopelessly flat.
Director Neil Pepe is given the thankless task of working around an ever-present truck at center-stage while trying to keep things interesting. Sightline issues present an unsurmounted problem, particularly in the first act when the stage is full. Some creative choreography by Sergio Trujillo and impressive mechanical mobility provide occasional exciting moments, but the truck ultimately proves to be the production's albatross, weighing in as a several-ton metaphor, far heavier than its contributing worth.
Aside from presenting a particularly peculiar setting for a musical, Hands on a Hardbody neither breaks new ground nor successfully fulfills the standard expectations of a musical, leaving it to hang in a realm of oddity that isn't odd enough to be truly interesting. Going off of the pat and somewhat tacked-on moral presented in its closing number, this is not a ticket you need to keep your hands on. - C. Jefferson Thom
Hands on a Hardbody will close after this Saturday evening's performance.
The Brooks Atkinson Theatre is at 256 West 47th St., New York, NY 10036.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.