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 April 5, 2013

Hands Down, A Musical That Could Still Be Great

A bit more than 60 years ago, a musical called “Wish You Were Here” opened to mostly terrible reviews. The future looked bleak, but then director Josh Logan decided to return to the show and do some work on it. “Wish You Were Here,” which had threatened to last something like 17 performances, ran 17 months and became one of the top 25 longest-running Broadway musicals in history.

Why doesn’t this happen more often? The fear of throwing good money after bad on rehearsal expenses? Sure. But if you believe in a property and realize you haven’t got it right yet, I say continue. Conventional wisdom says after seven weeks, the reviews are meaningless. So return to work, and you just may be rewarded from your 56th performance on. Hell, even Gower Champion, whose Hello, Dolly! received raves, felt he could improve it – and later did.

This is relevant to Hands on a Hardbody, the new musical that received mostly qualified approvals – and reviews that were more encouraging than “Wish You Were Here’s.”

They weren’t, of course, as good as the ones that A Chorus Line received. There’s reason for comparison, because the Michael Bennett classic had performers endeavor to prove that they could dance well enough to be hired for the ensemble of a Broadway musical. Here, 10 contestants must arrive at the Floyd King Nissan Dealership in Longview, Texas and try to win a truck. Easier said than done: each must keep a hand on the truck until every other contender drops off – however long it takes. (A few five- and fifteen-minute breaks are allowed.) JD Drew (Keith Carradine) makes a good point when he notes the irony of an American Dream involving a Japanese vehicle.

Librettist Doug Wright, composer Trey Anastasio and lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green can be proud of how much they’ve achieved in this musical based on a 1997 documentary. JD Drew, for example, may not quite be in denial about his recent accident, but he’s close to it. Many a man has been in this position: a loving wife (Mary Gordon Murray) wants her husband to be super-careful after a health scare and, out of love, monitors his every move. The problem is that JD can’t bear her incessant worry or take her advice. They have an excellent song, “Alone with Me,” about where they were at the start of their relationship and where they are now.

Drew laments the franchising of American businesses that makes each city and town resemble every other one. And while we’ve heard the phrase “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” here the cliché becomes a fresh new dangerous image: “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” sings Nissan exec Mike Ferris (Jim Newman) to blonde and beautiful Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), the contestant in whom he’s most interested for obvious reasons. Suddenly, she believes that she can win.

That spurs the show’s most imaginative song, courtesy of Janis Curtis (Dale Soules, in her first significant role in nearly 40 years; she introduced “West End Avenue” in The Magic Show). The weathered, overweight Janis accuses the pretty, svelte Heather and Ferris of rigging the contest. And yet, by the time Janis finishes singing, the plot has moved in an unexpected direction that few in the audience will see coming.

Kelli Mangrum (Allison Case) expresses her gratitude because she’s gainfully employed, for she knows that she could be like many others who are not. How humbled we are when she reveals that she’s working at UPS, which is hardly anyone’s dream job. As if that isn’t bad enough, she then discloses that she works from midnight to dawn. Here’s hoping that all who see Hardbody will think of this brave unfortunate the next time they consider complaining about their work.

Chris Alvaro (David Larsen) is a military veteran who recalls when a recruiter arrived at his high school and stressed that the armed forces would make a man “Stronger.” Well, yes and no.

There are some fascinating non-musical moments, too. At one point, Norma Valverde (Keala Settle) who has her headphones in her ears, starts laughing and cannot stop. Is what she’s listening to causing her to laugh -- or is she going crazy from the torturous experience? Should we worry for her or be glad that she’s enjoying herself? (Valverde, by the way, puts her faith in God. We’ll see how much that helps her.)

When Bob Merrill wrote the lyrics to Prettybelle – also set in the rural south – he wrote many imperfect rhymes to indicate the characters’ ignorance. Green more wisely goes for perfect rhymes (which help an audience to understand each word) and instead leans on grammatical errors to show her characters’ lack of learning. She’s less than perfect in her accenting syllables, but for a country-tinged score, these lyrics reach a high level of achievement. (Green’s music with Trey Anastasio is easy country that makes an affable impression.)

So why isn’t it better? Hardbody should be more gripping than A Chorus Line because that classic has room for eight winners, but Hardbody can only have one. That makes the competitors here a little snarkier and more suspicious – but not enough. Only one strikes us as venal: Benny Perkins (Hunter Foster), who plays a mind game on a contestant to get him to quit. If the others have any fire in their bellies, it’s been merely lit by a single match.

Suggestion Number One: Stop having these competitors be genial to each other, and have them all be in a survival-of-the-fittest mode.

Although the directive is given from the outset that “You may not lean, squat or rest your legs” director Neil Pepe hasn’t noticed that most of the contestants do lean on the truck and aren’t penalized.

Suggestion Number Two: Make either Mike Ferris or Cindy Barnes (Connie Ray) who run the dealership a hard-ass judge who eliminates a contestant in the first few seconds for even seeming to lean on the truck.

Wouldn’t someone who’s used to punctuating his speech with gestures inadvertently take his hand off the trunk when he was making a dramatic point? Are the habits of a lifetime that easily suppressed? Indeed, someone does slip up -- but not until much later in the show.

Suggestion Number Three: This gaffe should happen early, too, so our Nazi judge could throw out yet another contestant who accidentally and involuntarily made the gesture, albeit for a split-second. Then we’d see and feel that the other contenders shudder at the realization that not even the tiniest infraction will be overlooked or forgiven.

Just as the Chorus Line cast “left” the line to perform numbers, the Hardbody clan occasionally joins in on numbers. When they drumbeat on the truck, however, their hands are off the truck.

Suggestion Number Four: Musical stager Sergio Trujillo should have the performers keep rhythm with their feet and never have them take their hands off the truck while dancing.

Under Pepe’s direction, the suspense simply doesn’t build. Although this is a show that depends on suspense, little kicks in until late in the second act.

Suggestion Number Five: There should be no second act. Like Chorus Line, Hardbody should be intermissionless. This is an endurance contest, and we should feel the increasing, never-relenting tension. An intermission relieves us of it, and puts the onus on Act Two to get back momentum.

Finally, one person is left standing – and we’re told that more than 91 hours have elapsed. Not until now do we have any real sense of how much time has passed.

Suggestion Number Six: Add to Christine Jones’ purposely ugly set a constantly changing digital clock to tell us how long everyone’s been stuck there. Our seeing that steadily increasing figure, sometimes by many hours at a time, would reinforce what an ordeal this is. It would amplify our sympathy for all.

It’s a marathon of sorts, so Hardbody also brings to mind They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the 1969 movie about a ‘30s dance marathon. At the beginning of that fine film, the contestants danced up a storm, full of vim and vigor, footloose and carefree. Ah, but by the time the film ended, everyone was far on the other end of the spectrum, utterly exhausted and defeated.

Suggestion Number Seven: Pepe must insist that his actors give him that same dramatic contrast. Frankly, the actors might have done better if they’d had that digital clock to consult, for it would remind them of the distinctive wear and tear that must be shown in the their body language over the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time. Late in the show, a doctor comes on to talk about sleep deprivation. But we should have seen long before evidence of this among the 10. Only after it’s discussed does the cast seem to react with, “Oh, yeah! Sleep deprivation! We should express that!” And then they do.

Perhaps Pepe, Green, Anastasio and Wright were sleep-deprived while readying Hardbody for its March 21 opening. If so, they’ve had more than two weeks to relax. Time to return to work – for our sake and their sake, too.

         — Peter Filichia


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