Ten down-on-their-luck Texans gather on a car lot to compete for a cherry red Nissan pickup. They must lay their gloved hands upon the truck and, except for scheduled breaks every six hours, never let go. The last person standing wins. That’s the premise behind Hands on a Hardbody, a 2012 musical now in its Bay Area premiere run at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions.
Based on a 1997 documentary that followed 24 contestants in an actual endurance competition, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Doug Wright trimmed the number of contestants to 10, and Trey Anastasio (Phish) and Amanda Green composed a Tony-nominated score to tell their backstories.
For those who don’t think there’s enough here for a full-length musical, each contestant explains what they’d do “If I Had This Truck.” Benny (Brian Watson) won the contest before, but has since lost the truck and his wife. Ronald (Michael David Smith) thinks his all-Snickers diet is the ticket to victory (he’s mistaken). J.D. (Barry Martin) sees the truck as a way to regain his virility. Greg (Ryan Hook) and Kelli (Kirstin Pieschke) meet and then make plans to drive away to Hollywood together. Janis (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) is doing it for her kids. Jesus (Alexander Gomez) could use some help putting himself through vet school. Chris (Michael Scott Wells) is a military vet who’s looking to make his son proud. Heather (Jenny Angell) may have the inside track, but Norma (Daniela Innocenti Beem) has God on her side.
Benny is the ostensible lead, but it’s a true ensemble piece with each character, including the non-contestants involved (spouses, the car dealers, a radio DJ), having his or her moment. Credit to director Taylor Bartolucci for assembling a talented, diverse cast to explore the themes beneath the surface, and to choreographer Staci Arriaga for figuring out how to make the cast move with one hand attached to a truck at all times—well, mostly. Musical director Craig Burdette leads a four-piece band in the heavily country and western–influenced score whose musical highlight is the raucous gospel number “Joy of the Lord.”
Basically, it’s A Chorus Line with a truck. At two and a half hours, it runs a bit long, but by the end you’ll be giving a hand to this Hardbody.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★