It’s a common if unfair criticism of country music that all of the songs are about trucks, but in the twang-inflected musical Hands on a Hardbody, that adage isn’t too far off the mark. The show, based on a 1997 documentary of the same name, focuses on a group of strangers who enter a contest wherein they must keep their gloved hands firmly planted on a pickup truck with no leaning and minimal breaks. The last person standing wins the truck, as well as notoriety in their small Texas town.
Each character has a different reason for showing up, and their backstories and inner lives are slowly revealed via songs and stories. It’s almost impossible not to compare Hardbody to A Chorus Line, a musical similarly structured around a group of varying personalities in a contest with each other that gives each player a defining moment. The owner of the dealership and his assistant are elevated in an office overlooking the stage, providing running commentary on the action from a seemingly godlike vantage point, not unlike A Chorus Line’s director. Like the rest of the cast, they too encounter economic anxiety and class issues.
The problem is that these problems are foregrounded, and what was likely subtext in the source material has been made text. Hardbody has something like 14 different social issues that it wants to comment on, and it hammers them home like a Very Very Very Special Episode. Benny (John Loughney), a mean spirited guy who won the contest a few years back, serves as the main antagonist, needling his fellow contestants and dishing out very on-the-nose racist taunts and insults in an attempt to unnerve them. But— surprise!—Benny’s pain comes from the suicide of his son, a Marine who killed himself after serving in Afghanistan. Once he admits this to a fellow contestant, he suddenly realizes what a jerk he is, and decides apropos of nothing not to be racist anymore.
It’s increasingly popular for productions to introduce a multimedia element, but attempts to incorporate projections here mostly fall flat. They’re directed at a background of fragmented triangles meant to resemble car dealership flags, making it difficult to parse out what’s on screen, and the choice of clips is thematically confusing. One such instance occurs when Jesús (Andres Alejandro Ponce), a Mexican-American man who is the frequent target of racist jabs, finally gets his comeuppance in the second act number “Born in Laredo.” He proclaims himself to be “every bit the Texan you are,” yet footage of Mexican border checkpoints is shown, in direct opposition to the spirit of the song, and it doesn’t help that the lyrics are somewhat denigrating toward actual immigrants.
The show does better when it goes for warm humor and everyday struggles. Intrigue comes in the form of Heather (Caroline Dubberly), an airheaded truck lover who’s having an affair with the dealership owner, Mike (Josh Sticklin). The two are in cahoots to throw the contest so Heather can win, and together they sing “Burn That Bridge,” an early, upbeat number that helps pick up the tempo of some of the otherwise sleepy songs. As the contestants start to droop from the heat and sleep deprivation, the group rallies the deeply religious Norma (Shayla Lowe) with the high-spirited and wonderfully sung gospel number “Joy of the Lord,” much of it performed sans orchestra and using the truck itself as a giant drum. Janis (Valerie Adams Rigsbee), a mother of six who sees through Heather’s scheme and realizes the whole contest is a hopeless ruse brings comedic charm to the fiery “It’s A Fix.”
The crowning of the winner feels very anticlimactic considering the entire show builds to that moment. Though each character gets a chance to share their story, too many people fight for stage time, making it hard to get invested in anyone in particular. When the whole gang is reunited onstage for an epilogue detailing where they all went after the contest, it feels like an afterthought. Rather than a fast and furious race to the finish, it’s an ambling ride down a dirt road.
1742 Church St. NW. $20–$62. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.