I had never before seen a Broadway musical prior to my trip to New York City’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre to see the new musical “Hands on a Hardbody.” The main draw was simple – Trey Anastasio wrote the music for the musical, which is based on a 1997 documentary about a contest in Texas to see who could keep their hands on a pickup truck the longest. Since this is Trey’s music, I knew what to expect, mainly because the transfer of talent from amphitheater (with Phish and TAB), to music halls (with Philharmonics across the country) showed his versatility and ability to branch out into other realms of the musical arts. With the combination of Trey, Amanda Green and a stellar cast, the experience was a top notch hit and I couldn’t recommend it any stronger to Phish fans to see.
Staged at the nearly 90 year old Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Manhattan, the intimate setting (~1000 seats) brought the stage close up to the audience, guaranteeing a good seat no matter where you were. From the start, the premise of the musical came out clear, particularly the rules, the 15 minutes breaks after 6 hours and the manually rotated truck all set the stage nicely, peppered with a strong Texas vibe best described by John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Trey’s influences in the songs are apparent, with the upbeat tempos, quick yet sharp transitions and, rubbing off on Amanda Green, some funny/Phishy lyrics. There is of course, “My Problem Right There,” one of the two songs Phish has performed live. This tune, sung by Jacob Ming-Trent (Ronald McCowan) has a serious soul injection while he raves about his problems of brains, women and sleep. A sexy “Burn That Bridge” is performed by Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone (Heather Stovall) and Jim Newman (Mike Ferris), giving a twist to the story and burning up the stage in the process.
The Phish songs were played well, which, in my case, were an incentive to seeing the show – I knew a couple songs going in to this otherwise new musical; in a way it felt like my early days of going into Phish show and being excited to know a couple songs. Still, there were 17 songs in the musical that haven’t (yet?) been performed by Phish, including some reprises, but no ‘Tweeprises.’ “Joy of the Lord” gave out a gospel stomp courtesy of Keala Settle (Norma Valverde) that engaged the whole cast and elicited some of the largest applause of the night. The sweet and airy “I’m Gone,” a duet between Allison Case (Kelli Mangrum) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Greg Wilhote) that captures Trey’s guitar tone (think a mix of “Sleep Again” and “Horn”), was a highlight for the emotional out pour of the song – the first point where I saw the true motivation for taking part in this contest – as well as the terrific pairing of Case and Johnson. Act One ended strong, with many hopeful contestants still in play.
The vibe of “Hands on a Hardbody” changed in Act Two: exhaustion sets in on the characters, the sleepless nights and the searing Texas sun during the day. This was compounded with spats of racial profiling, deception and even accusations, culminating with “It’s a Fix.” This was an emotion-packed Act 2, most notably “God Answered My Prayers,” one of the most heartfelt tunes of the show thanks to Hunter Foster’s role as Benny Perkins; through him the audience could most strongly make an emotional investment in a contestant, so drawn into his case for winning the truck. The finale, a rousing and uplifting “Keep Your Hands on It” sang the moral of the story with the full cast: If you want something, keep your hands on it. I walked out on a buzz from the entire performance, less because it was my first musical but more because of the strong musical numbers and incredible acting and choreography. I would highly recommend this for Phish fans to check out, perhaps on a day off on Summer Tour this July?
“Hands on a Hardbody” is written by Doug Wright with lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Trey Anastasio, directed by Neil Pepe and musical staging by Sergio Trujillo.