In Texas, they say, the truck is the center of life. Not only a vehicle to haul lumber and supplies and take your date to the Dairy Queen, it's a source of identity, of independence. To quote from one of Amanda Green's lyrics in the new musical Hands on a Hardbody, now being presented by La Jolla Playhouse en route to Broadway: "But if you live in Texas/And you ain't got no truck/Honey, you're stuck."
Hands on a Hardbody has been developed by LJP, with book by Doug Wright (a Pulitzer winner for I Am My Own Wife), lyrics by Green and music by Green and Trey Anastasio of the band Phish, based on the 1997 documentary film of the same title by S.R. Bindler and Kevin Morris.
The documentary studied more than two dozen contestants participating in the Survivor-like marketing ploy of a Nissan dealership in the small east Texas town of Longview. To win a small pickup truck, the contestants laid their gloved hands on the prize, and any contestant who removed both hands from the vehicle was disqualified. The game became a marathon of endurance, tedium, heat stroke and potentially lethal sleep deprivation, day after day in the blazing sun, until mirages and other forms of psychosis eventually set in — all for the sake of winning a free new truck.
The documentary slid inside the characters of the contestants, with the compassionate view that these were people who were hurting, in a place that was hurting. It reached for the universal through the provincial.
The musical stage adaptation slims down the number of contestants from 25 to 10, and transfers its narrative point of view from on-camera interviews to songs: Anastasio and Green's ballad-heavy, country-folk laments, with sprinklings of gospel and pop.
The musical has taken dramatic license, inventing stories, for the sake of the tension and unity that make a show, particularly a Broadway show, more satisfying than a slice of life. The resulting structure is something between June Havoc's Marathon 33, about the cruelty of a Depression-era dance marathon, and A Chorus Line, the saga of auditioners being whittled down for casting in a Broadway show.
The strategy has mixed results. The reasons that the various contestants fall away are mercifully spontaneous and unpredictable. And the ensemble, from the quality of the performances to the voices, is top-flight under Neil Pepe's direction.
At the same time, with a few notable exceptions, what come across in the documentary as idiosyncratic characters are here translated into types: For instance, an ambitious Mexican-American who longs to be a student of veterinary medicine, named, of course, Jesus (Jon Rua), seethes at being stereotyped by his neighbors as a dumb illiterate. His anthem, "Born in Laredo," says he's as American as any of the other contestants and, unlike his competitors, he has the advantage of being fluent in two languages. Of course this is entirely plausible. It's also plausible that he not be fluent in Spanish, which might provide an interesting personal frustration and an irony that shatters the stereotype that everyone of Mexican descent is fluent in the home tongue. NPR recently reported that among the challenges facing a wave of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans returning to Mexico is a lack of fluency in Spanish, because they've been immersed in English, while living their American lives.
To its credit, the treatment of a woman named Norma Valverde (Keala Settle) is an example of what the musical does right, for the most part. She's the kind of Bible thumper who turns to God as savior, with the profound belief that He has little better to do than help her win a contest at Floyd King Nissan Dealership while, say, the Middle East is collapsing into genocide. She's ripe for ridicule, but the combination of book, lyrics and Settle's marvelous performance avoids making her an easy target, sustaining respect and compassion for her.
Somewhere between truth and truism lies the drama of gorgeous blonde Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) and the dealership's slick manager, Mike Ferris (Jim Newman). Mike is a Texan John Edwards, similarly married, and similarly attracted to a pair of female legs in tight shorts. There's a subplot concerning a modicum of corruption, culminating in the song by crusty contestant Janice Curtis (Dale Soules) called "It's a Fix!"
And in this way, the piece declares its themes as though they were on a bumper sticker of that truck, which floats to and fro across the floor of Christine Jones' otherwise spartan set. In this competition to win an "American" truck manufactured by a Japanese company, every incident is allegorical, part of the rigged game of life, the game of hanging on, of letting go:
"Don't think the contest's over just 'cause the tent is gone./This contest is for life/And it goes on and on and on. ... That's the nature of us creatures living on this planet Earth./You're fighting from your breath/Right from the moment of your birth!"
The anthem near the show's close could have been concocted by Bertolt Brecht. In its sometimes sly, sometimes clumsy way, this musical is very much aligned with Brecht's sadness and fury and indignation. And that's where it parts ways from the documentary, as in the difference between a slice of life with a subtle point of view and a sermon about the way things work, and don't — one that's poignant nonetheless.
The musical's centerpiece is a contestant named J.D. Drew, played with exquisite understatement by Keith Carradine. Now morose and driving his childhood bride (the wonderful Mary Gordon Murray) to distraction, J.D. describes himself as once having been a cross between Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen, who worked on the oil rigs. An accident landed him recently in the hospital, but here he is, in the blazing sun, trying to win a truck. His wife fears he's grown tired of her, but he sings to her that he's just tired. She fears he wants the truck in order to flee her. He answers her anxiety with Green's piercing lyric:
"Well, she looks the same/at least to me./But I ain't the man I used to be./My mind is sharp as ever but my body's shot to hell./It would sure be nice to feel I still do something well."
With Carradine's gentle confession sung so tenderly, a woman near me looked at her husband in a wheelchair and starting weeping with recognition.
In the hands of a great actor, sometimes it just takes the line or two from a well-crafted song or a poem to cut to the heart of something so heartbreaking and true.
HANDS ON A HARDBODY | Book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, based on the documentary film by S.R. Bindler and Kevin Morris | La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla | Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through June 17 | (858) 550-1010 | lajollaplayhouse.org