It began as the first act was coming to a close with the lyrically silly, yet corky and whimsical duet between Jay Armstrong Johnson and Allison Case's characters, the two young, lovebirds whom met at this, admittedly ridiculous, car competition. She works at UPS and loves it, but wants to win the car and travel. He is unemployed and wants to be a stuntman out in Hollywood, hoping the car would put his plan into action. They go full-on dream sequence and hop and vamp aboard the car, and Jay, bless his heart, goes as far as doing a flip off of it (my body was not ready for that).
Following suit that surprisingly fantastic moment, was an impromptu acapella number initiated by the show's Jesus-loving gospel queen. It became a full-blown jamfest, complete with drumming on the car, that had enough spirit to win me over (and the cynical army guy's post-number reaction was hilarious). Between the both of these numbers, I thought the show would course correct and tap into its full potential.
Sadly, it never did.
A word of advice to any writers/composers/producers...if your musical even slightly evokes Scandalous or Leap of Faith, time to toss out that hunk of junk and start over. Not just thematically (i.e religious undertone), but in its runthrough (i.e superfluous characters getting random and clumsily-inserted numbers, desperate audience pandering).
For the life of me, I just don't understand how the creative, some of whom are very talented (side glance to Doug Wright, late of I Am My Own Wife, who wrote the book), didn't see the mistakes they were making. Like, did they realize that most of the music bypassed "clever genre mixing" and lacked cohesion? And that most of their songs, less the aforementioned two, were utterly forgettable five minutes after they wrapped up?
Even worse, they had the gall to throw in some horribly thoughtout ideas. Two managers from the car dealership sponsoring the competition are...conspiring to generate sales, or something. They attempt to fix the competition with a planted participant, I don't care about them, blah blah blah...their character motivations are either poorly established or hilariously one-note; cartoon villains look Shakespearian by comparison. Also, military and racism plot points are "featured" (I'm not kidding). What was so offensive about both is that they are meekly addressed and then dropped just as fast (and then brought back again, ugh). I guess the idea was that mentioning these issues would make select characters seem more complex...yeah, it doesn't work like that. And you know what; they were worse off going down those routes without even trying to inject substance.
Under normal circumstances, I would give Sergio Trujillo a free pass on the choreography given his characters have their hands planted on a car 90% of the time. However, using the same, transitional, lackluster choreography between scenes over and over (and over) again was uninspired as hell. And dare I say it...it is only a matter of time before it all looks like car molestation. If it was a girl, it would be having mixed-race octuplets come out in 9 months.
It's worth bringing up the comparison I anticipated, but Hands on a Hardbody is, essentially, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, just with a car prize. A ragtag group of misfits cross paths at a silly competition. The score and book pertain to the competition itself, the character's purposes, plights, feelz, hopes, dreams, you name it...they fall one-by-one and the show ends when the winner is crowned and the prologue, "where are they now?" bit pops up. However, where 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was high-camp and didn't take itself too seriously with its over-the-top story and had a charming/hilarious book and score, Hands on a Hardbody...umm, doesn't.
I would have been a little more lenient on this show had it not transferred in hot out of its La Jolla Playhouse run...but this whole show is a huge stack of wrong. And it is disappointing, to say the least. Then again, a musical about a bunch of Texans competing over a car...had they nailed it, kudos to them for going off-the-beaten path. But this shoddy effort was hardly what I would call nailing it...more like "nail in my coffin."
Photo Credit: Chad Batka