The reviews for Hands on a Hardbody are in and critics seemed pleasantly surprised by the production. You get the impression that they all went in expecting to hate a show about a group of people trying to keep their hands on a truck, but though they might have found the show static in parts, the combination of characters and song genres not often seen or heard on the Broadway stage offered a refreshing, definitively American tale. Though a little preachy here and there, a little too Phish-ily repetitive in song-styling and a little too truck-centric in movement terms, they found Hands charming and satisfying.
NEW YORK TIMES
“You can hear the sound of America singing in “Hands on a Hardbody,” the daring new musical that opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Thursday night. With a bravado to match the gumption of its characters…this new show drives onto the Broadway lot without the high-gloss blandishments that adorn most big musicals…Of splashy song and dance there isn’t much. The skillful score, by Trey Anastasio of the indie jam-band Phish (music) and Amanda Green (music and lyrics), locks into a bluesy country-rock vibe early and hugs it tight. The characters’ hearts may yearn to dance free, but they are forced by circumstances to stand still…Although it’s far from fully loaded in a conventional sense, this scrappy, sincere new musical brings a fresh, handmade feeling to Broadway…The biggest challenge the musical faces is the inevitably static nature of the story line. It’s not a problem the show really overcomes…“Hands on a Hardbody” can’t always surmount the energy drain resulting from the characters’ inability to move for long stretches. I wish too that the musical’s authors were not quite so thorough in canvassing the headline-making troubles of Americans today…But if the writing occasionally wears its social concerns on its sleeve, the score cuts loose.”
“If sales of Nissan pickup trucks tick up in the next few months, there may be an unlikely source: a Broadway musical….Anastasio and Broadway veteran Amanda Green have written a soundtrack of mostly fine songs in a nice mix of styles — blues, gospel, country and honky-tonk — that will fire you right up. Playwright Doug Wright has had some fun himself, the cast is committed and realistic, and the whole thing is a pleasing, tuneful, heart-filled ode to small towns and American dreams….Director Neil Pepe and Sergio Trujillo, who did musical staging, get full credit for making this show move delightfully despite the subject matter being an exhausting test of endurance…Trujillo has his actors duck under each other’s arms, jump and dance on the spinning truck, make it the object of a tug-of-war and even bring the house down in a “Stomp”-like song in which the actors knock out a beat on the Nissan itself, turning it into a big drum.”
AM NEW YORK
“One of the simplest, purest ways to create a drama is to expose a competition or game where various individuals are all motivated to win – preferably at any cost. There are two great musicals written from this vantage point: “A Chorus Line” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Now comes “Hands on a Hardbody.”…The musical, which has an underwhelming but heartfelt country-rock score by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green and a penetrating book by Pulitzer-winning playwright Doug Wright, creates an environment where nearly all the participants are suffering economically and are in desperate need of a financial windfall. Neil Pepe’s production is quite gripping – most impressive is how the actors manipulate the vehicle and perform dance choreography while their hands are still attached to it.”
“Well, Broadway finally got itself an all-American musical in “Hands on a Hardbody.” The question is, will an all-American audience go for it?…[with an] unusually articulate book and well-integrated score [that leaves] characters revealing unexpected aspects of themselves in both song and narrative — which makes [the musical] both musically unpredictable and dramatically credible….If the show has a weakness, it’s that the music is so consistently all-of-a-piece that some of the songs tend to melt into one another….With 10 people stuck to a truck for much of the show, a choreographer doesn’t have much of a chance to do his stuff. But helmer Neil Pepe and Sergio Trujillo, who did the musical staging, find a lot of ways to push that truck around the stage and make it look interesting.”
“If you only see only one musical this year loosely based on a 1997 documentary about people in Texas trying to win a Nissan truck by being the last person to keep their hand on it, it may as well be Hands on a Hardbody…there is much to enjoy here, from Hunter Foster’s bullying portrayal of a two-time car-winning champion — if that’s the right word — to Keala Settle’s turn as the desperate, God-fearing Norma. The actors also include the great Keith Carradine, who is probably best known now for appearing on Showtime’s Dexter but who both sang and wrote the Oscar-winning song ”I’m Easy” for Robert Altman’s 1975 movie Nashville. Sadly, few of the numbers in Hands on a Hardbody are as memorable as that melancholic ditty. The tunes that work best find Anastasio and cowriter-lyricist Amanda Green at their musically Phishiest…But the pair’s excursions into country, blues, and a clutch of other genres rarely rise above the generic. Moreover, while the songwriters and book author Doug Wright clearly regard this insane competition as a prism through which to consider such weighty subjects as war, religion, and racism, it is rather difficult to engage with such ruminative choreography when the cast is literally dancing around an enormous car.”