Unusual Musical Debuts At Famed La Jolla Playhouse

Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

The issue now vexing audiences at the La Jolla Playhouse is: How does one make a musical about a Nissan truck and an auto dealership publicity stunt in Texas (ah, that might explain it) and how it affects the ten contestants in an endurance contest who must keep at least one hand on the body of the vehicle until there is only one person left still clinging to it; who then gets to keep the vehicle?  If one buys into the premise, then one can buy the bits that follow.
The production’s unusual and unlikely premise certainly fits the profile and the mission statement of the Playhouse.  Chris Ashley, the wonderfully talented artistic director at La Jolla, has a successful track record of making winners out of unlikely subject matter (I loved his “Midsummer Night’s” sublimely creative take, as well as the inventive “Peer Gynt” production a couple of seasons back).
Well, it’s time once more to roll the dice and see if the latest offering “Hands on a Hard Body”, a rock musical written by Texas native Doug Wright; lyrics by talented Amanda Green; with music by (former lead vocalist and guitarist for the rock band Phish) Trey Anastasio  and Amanda Green at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, can win over the traditionalists in the audience.
The powerhouse creative team of Director Neil Pepe and Musical Staging Director Benjamin Millepied, along with Wright, Green, and Anastasio are all veterans and award winners of Broadway and Hollywood.  The show’s pedigree is impeccable yet… there’s something gnawing at me as far as the story goes.   It’s a little too reminiscent of the haunting 1969 Sydney Pollack movie “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” which was set in Depression America of the 1930’s.
In “Hard Body”, the team sets the story in the present, but paints the show with comedy strokes even sinking into melodrama at times.  The rock musical story about troubled people – some might even view as non-mainstream/losers – struggling in a downer economy fails to fully engage.  It’s not easy to fall in love with a truck, smack in the middle of the stage, surrounded by people with economic problems not of their own making; all demeaning themselves in order to win a publicity-hyped competition from an auto dealership in east Texas.
It isn’t fair either to judge the talented cast, who work their tails off, because the show’s libretto fails to measure up, however, the show’s music isn’t very interesting either.  I doubt anyone will leave the theatre humming the melodies and lyrics from songs like “Hunt with the Big Dogs” or “If I Had a Truck”, or “A Little Somethin’ Somethin’”, or “Hands on a Hard Body”.
The cast of 15 actor/singers is uniformly solid, but a few performers stand out.  Hunter Foster as Benny Perkins, Jacob Ming Trent as Ronald McGowan, Keala Settle as Norma Valverde, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as Heather Stovall, Jon Rua as Jesus Pena, and David Larsen as Chris Alvaro bring finely judged performances to the musical which features a driving rock band of six excellent musicians.
Also, the production lacks focus (well, maybe not for Texans).  It juggles ten different stories of people, all of whom, proclaim, as the characters did in ‘Chorus Line’, “I really need this job”.  Just substitute “truck” for “job”, and Voila, we have “Hard Body”.  This musical, however, is no “Chorus Line”.  As to which character hangs on through thick and thin, ultimately getting the keys? … well… you will have to come and see the show  for yourself.
“Hands on a Hard Body” performs at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, through June 17th.  For ticket information call 858-550-1010 or go online at www.lajollaplayhouse.org

 

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