Okay. I know how this sounds. But this musical is a bit like A Chorus Line but, you know, in Texas.
It’s about 10 local folks at a Nissan Dealership in Texas aiming to win a new truck. In order to do so, they’ve got to be the last one standing with a hand…
Dammit! I tried to avoid saying it, I swear!
Anyways, each contestant has their own backstory, their own quirks, their own dreams. Economic recession is pretty much a universal motivating factor, even for the bumbling car dealers running the contest. Americans young and old are struggling, and the car (fyi in case you haven’t been aware of what passes for American symbols for the past 75 years) gives them all a pass at the American Dream.
For past champion Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster), the new car means an affirmation of manhood. He lost his old prize car when his wife drove away with it (and didn’t come back). For JD Drew (Keith Carradine) it’s proof that he can still succeed in his old age and pay off medical bills. Jesus Pena (Jon Rua) wants the car to sell for veterinary school money. Norma Valverde (Keala Settle) reportedly has 3,000 people praying for her to win each day. And so on and so forth.
A chorus line. With a car instead of a role in a play. Or whatever, I haven’t seen A Chorus Line in years.
If the musical feels like it’s hitting you over the head with “This is America” sentiment, well that’s because it is. It’s sappy, it’s sentimental, it’s predictable, it’s cutesy. And yet, it’s pretty goshdarn awesome.
You might ask, but Sara, how can something so relentlessly saptastic and formulaic actually be any good? Well, the answer’s in the title of the first number. It’s a “human drama sort of thing.” Each contestant has something at stake. And you never quite favor any one contestant over the other. You’re watching not only a competition but also a network of building relationships. And while none of them are really unique per se, much less groundbreaking theatre, there’s something identifiably human about all of them. The show is unashamedly moralistic and optimistic. But you never quite feel like you’re being preached to. Rather, you just know you’re watching the truth of it all.
That’s not to say that there ain’t no critique in this show. One of the best musical numbers features Jesus, an American-born child of immigrant parents who faces racism even in the contest. The choreography (which is pretty excellent overall) turns the hardbody contest into a border line crossing, all spotlights on Jesus, who is being singled out by the dealership and, symbolically, is still navigating the border, even in his native country. It’s blunt but it’s bold. Another musical number features another contestant who is a Marine veteran. It’s another daring reflection on the post-combat lives of young veterans who return home with no path to move forward. And it’s heartbreaking.
So while Hands on a Hardbody might not exactly be subtle or complex, it has lots to offer its audience by way of the stories it tells and its depiction of contemporary American life.
P.S. Oh and like, OMG someone actually wins the car and it’s like super cute and everybody gets a happy ending and I’m like aaawwwing and shedding a tear in aisle D seat 9.