The set-up: "American dream, Japanese car," snips J.D. Drew (Kevin Cooney, feisty and loveable), the oldest of the ten contestants vying for a chance at happiness on the merciless macadam of the Floyd King Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas.
In Hands on a Hardbody, an offbeat but surprisingly affecting musical from Doug Wright (book), Amanda Green (lyrics and music), and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio (music), if J.D. can keep one hand planted on this shiny new, cherry-red pickup longer than the others, the car is his.
But he's old and hurt. Recently fired from the oil rig where he fell and broke his leg, can he stand for hours at a time? (The hopefuls get a 15-minute break every six hours.) Wife Virginia (Theresa Nelson, more actress than singer) coddles him and belittles his chances. He could die out here. And for what? And why don't you look at me like you used to? Indifferent to her concerns, J.D. chases her away. He's on his own. Can the old man do it alone? Check out our interview with Betty Marie Muessig.
The execution: He's got tough competition. The other nine are younger, rougher, and really, really want this truck.
The bully of the bunch is Benny (burly Drew Starlin, with rock star voice), who's previously won this contest a few years back. He knows all the tricks, like how to play the participants against each other or against themselves. He intimidates, humiliates, and is a pain in the ass.
Ronald (Anthony Boggess-Glover, who can rock his huge body like a pole dancer) has loaded up on Snickers to give him energy. His dream is a landscaping business, and that truck will get him there. Jesus (John Ryan Delbosque, who stops the show with his mariachi-infused "Born in Loredo") wants the truck so he can sell it and pay his college tuition; Norma (Donnie Hammond, another show stopper with her rousing gospel number "Joy of the Lord") needs the truck to ferry her kids to school and church, and has an immense prayer circle urging her on; Janis (Houston theater vet Susan Koozin) is broke but has support from her loving hubby Don (Brad Zimmerman).
Chris (Tyce Green, who belts a stirring "Stronger"), a former marine, has muscle and military determination on his side; innocent Kelli (Betty Marie Muessig), drudging through a night shift at UPS, wants out of town, as does young Greg (Cole Ryden). They have a sweet up-tempo duet, "I'm Gone," dreaming of their mutual escape to California. Sexy Heather (Julia Krohn) is not above cheating, falling for the fast line by car dealer Mike (a spiky, sleazy Michael Tapley) who gives her amphetamines to see her through the ordeal. Business assistant Cindy (Brooke Wilson) tries to keep the contest honest, even as she knows the dealership is going down the tubes because of Mike's mismanagement.
Everyone's got problems. Life hasn't been fair or good for any of them. Success would be getting off the night shift at Walmart. Hardbody is blue-collar A Chorus Line, with multiple characters who compete for a new chance to change their life. One by one, they're winnowed down. Here it's a red Nissan that's the ticket out of town, the rent or tuition payment, the visible symbol of making it. It's fulfillment, it's power, it's validation. It's the American Dream. We sympathize with all the characters - even bad Benny has an eleventh-hour conversion - and cheer for them to keep their hands on the car as long as possible. As each falls by the wayside, for a whole variety of reasons, the surprises catch the audience off balance. Disappointed gasps can be heard as a favorite bites the dust.
For a musical that has a static, unmusical premise - the characters can't move very far, they're cemented to the truck's body - Hardbody never stands still. The truck's on a turntable, so every character gets to center stage for their big number when necessary; or they leap frog over each other, always keeping one hand on the chassis as they maneuver around the truck. Norma's joyous "Joy of the Lord" uses the truck as rhythm section, even the horn. Michelle Gaudette's choreography is wonderfully resourceful, as is Bruce Lumpkin's unflagging direction.
Set in east Texas, the musical score complements the characters: a bit of country, some country rock, a little gospel, folksy bluegrass - their music. While Green's simple lyrics often skew toward the doggerel, without much poetry, the words sound remarkably like the people singing them. There's no poetry in their lives at all. They're poor, down on their luck, and without much chance of doing anything other than what they're doing right now. Dead end jobs in a dead end town in a dead end decade. The show doesn't condescend and never mocks, nor does it unduly elevate or sanitize. It takes an unflinching look at the economy today and how it affects ordinary people.
The lives of the have-nots aren't usually the subject of musicals. There's not much joy in Hardbody, except the plain, universal ones: a family can enrich; be kind to each other; and "if you want something, keep your hands on it." This is the little musical that could. There's plenty of joy in that.
Hands on a Hardbody. Through June 22. TUTS Underground. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tutsunderground.com or call 713-558-8887. $24-$39.