May 16 2012 12:21 PM

World-premiere musical Hands on a Hardbody' leads our coverage of plays in local production

A Nissan truck is a principal part of the cast of Hands on a Hardbody
Photo by Kevin Berne

If you live in East Texas and you don't own a truck, you're a loser—or so believe the contestants vying to win a hardbody truck, courtesy of the Floyd King Nissan Dealership in Longview. None of them wants to be a loser, and to avoid being one, he or she must keep at least one gloved hand on the giveaway truck at all times (minus 15-minute breaks). Last one standing and still touching wins.

That's ostensibly the story of Hands on a Hardbody, the world-premiere musical at La Jolla Playhouse created by Doug Wright (book), with music and lyrics by Amanda Green and Phish guitarist / composer Trey Anastasio. But it doesn't take very long, or any stretch of the imagination, to perceive that the win-the-truck contestants, many of them down-on-their-luck dreamers, are competing for something much more. The truck, on the stage at all times and rightfully considered by the producers to be the musical's "16th character," is a four-wheeled metaphor. (It's a shame that the show's closing number includes an explanation to that effect, one that wasn't at all necessary.)

Under the direction of Neil Pepe, a game cast led by Keith Carradine (his singing voice still as poignant as it was 37 years ago in Nashville) illuminates Anastasio and Green's likable score, which flits from country to gospel to power balladry. The contestants' individual stories—each gets at least one showcase moment—unfold à la A Chorus Line. In that show, we peeked inside the souls of Broadway dancers. In Hands on a Hardbody, which is based on a true story previously told in a 1997 documentary, our view is of 10 very different people whose aspirations are less grandiose, but no less real.

A lengthy but lively first act, distinguished by a percussive, Stomp-like sequence with the truck as an "instrument," is followed by a second act that grapples with everything from bigotry to the scars of the Iraq War. Then Hands on a Hardbody turns wide-eyed, solemnly saluting "The Tryers" and wrapping a feel-good ribbon around the only in- America irony of 10 Texans trying to win a Japanese truck made in Tennessee.

Hands on a Hardbody runs through June 17 at La Jolla Playhouse.

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Dirty Blonde: An aspiring actress on an annual trek to Mae West's gravesite meets a film librarian who shares a devotion to the iconic sex symbol. Produced by Cygnet Theatre, it opens in previews on May 17 at The Old Town Theatre.

Nobody Loves You: In this musical comedy—which opened May 9 but didn't make our listings last week—a grad student of philosophy goes on a reality TV show to get his ex back. Will he rekindle the old flame or light a new one? Runs through June 17 at The Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

Now Playing

Chicago: You know Christie Brinkley from Sport Illustrated swimsuit covers, a failed celebrity marriage and a role as a hottie in National Lampoon's Vacation. Now you can see her as Roxie Hart in this Prohibition-era musical. Runs through May 13 at the Civic Theatre, Downtown.

Late Nite Catechism: The participatory solo comedy by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan turns 20 years old this year. Through May 19 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido.

Master Harold... and the Boys: Teenage stage and film actor and San Diego native Austyn Myers has formed a new company, Living Light Theatre, and for its first show, Myers has chosen this play about the relationship between a white 17-year-old and two black servants in Apartheid-era South Africa. Runs through May 20 in the Lyceum Space at Horton Plaza, Downtown.

No Child…: InnerMission Productions and the Mesa College Drama Department present Nilaja Sun's humorous and topical take on education in a low-income community, written as a one-woman show but performed here by a full cast. It runs through May 20 at the Apolliad Theatre at Mesa College.

Stepping Out: Amateur dancers are invited to perform at a big party in this upbeat comedy. Are they up to the task? Through May 20 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido.

Topdog / Underdog: Ion Theatre borrows Moxie Theatre's Delicia Turner Sonnenberg to direct this dark-comic tale of rivalry between two brothers, jokingly named Lincoln and Booth. Through May 20 at BLK BOX @ 6th & Penn in Hillcrest.

Grease: You know the story: Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy pretends not to like girl. Girl pretends to be slutty to get boy back. Singing. Dancing. The '50s. Through May 26 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.

Brownie Points: Deborah Gilmour Smyth directs the Southern California premiere of this new play about five women who discover themselves and each other while on a field trip with their daughters, who are never seen by the audience. Through May 27 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado.

miXtape: Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb's Players Theatre, it runs through May 27 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown.

Trying: It's the late 1960s and a young secretary is trying to help former Attorney General Francis Biddle get his affairs in order as he tries to cope with old age. Runs through June 3 at Broadway Theatre in Vista.

The Scottsboro Boys: The Scottsboro Boys were nine black kids charged with raping two white girls in Alabama in 1931, and their case was representative of racism in the criminal-justice system. The Scottsboro Boys is a musical based on their story. Through June 10 at the Old Globe in Balboa Park.

Hands on a Hardbody: A musical based on a documentary? Yep. This Playhouse-commissioned play is about 10 contestants trying to win a truck in a battle of endurance, with music by Amanda Green and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Through June 17 at La Jolla Playhouse.

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women: The evolution of women's role in society is explored through past top-40 hits in this upbeat musical. Through June 24 at the Lyceum Stage at Horton Plaza.

Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill.


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