The new musical Hands on a Hardbody, based on S.R. Bindler and Kevin Morris’ 1997 documentary film, received mostly positive reviews for its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse. The creative team is Doug Wright (book), Amanda Green (lyrics and music), Trey Anastasio (music), Neil Pepe (direction), Benjamin Millepied (choreography), Christine Jones (sets), Susan Hilferty (costumes), Kevin Adams (lights), and Steve Canyon Kennedy (sound). The cast includes Keith Carradine (JD), Hunter Foster (Benny), and Keala Settle (Norma) with Allison Case, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jacob Ming Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Mike Sears, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, and William Youmans.
James Hebert (Union-Tribune): It’s a show loaded with ace performers, strong new songs and a title metaphor that handily takes in desire, conflict, godliness and good ol’ American hucksterism. Now all that Hands on a Hardbody might need is to keep its foot on the gas. … One element that feels a little naggingly underdeveloped is the competition’s sense of carnival. There are vague mentions of spectators, but the event can feel as if it’s happening in a vacuum. … Still, Hardbody comes off as a wholly original, witty and worthy exploration of intertwined themes from economic hardship to racial friction to war and its costs, to the passing of small-town America. As the show says, a truck is like a hat to a Texan. A tip of the ten-gallon to this one.
Charles McNulty (L.A. Times): It’s a relief to encounter a musical that isn’t afraid to follow its own idiosyncratic vision. The folksy low-key aesthetic is especially seductive in these days of overproduced spectacles. If the show could rid itself of the sprawl that causes the momentum to sag noticeably in the second half, Hardbody could be an offbeat winner. … Hands on a Hardbody succeeds in spite of its shackles – maybe even because of them. The show, which doesn’t have the option of falling back on glitzy razzmatazz … has to rely on its heart and humanity to motor it along. And in Carradine and Settle, the production has two performers capable of anchoring a satisfying emotional journey. … This Hardbody could still use an overhaul, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it parked on Broadway.
Rob Stevens (Theater Mania): While it might seem like watching 10 people standing around a truck might get boring, the result proves to be a very lively and well-crafted production – one that could drive itself into the winner’s circle on Broadway if it so chooses. … Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright has crafted a solid book full of flesh-and-blood characters and true-to life-dialogue, making us care about who will be able to keep their eyes (and hands) on the prize long enough to emerge victorious. Amanda Green’s lyrics are often simplistic and predictable and her rhymes at times questionable, but, overall, they fit these characters and their situations, while the music by Green and Phish’s Trey Anastasio is mostly in the appropriately twangy country western motif. … All of it makes this Harbdody easy to watch.
Bob Verini (Variety): After a tune-up, this vehicle could be in it for the long haul. … The team at its best serves up a funky array of down-home, bluegrassy expressions of want and need. … Wright’s Grand Hotel panorama of plains types mostly succeeds in transcending stereotype. … Pepe and musical stager Benjamin Millepied permit the contestants to break contact with the truck in order to blast power ballads downstage or engage in stiff, dull movement patterns. … Worse, to achieve some visual variety, the contenders are asked to pull and prod the pickup all over the place like a skidding Zamboni. … If the truck is, as press notes claim, “the 16th character,” someone needs to keep that guy from overacting.