Keegan Theater, renowned for its slam-dunk productions of well-known musicals such as Chicago, Hair, and American Idiot, now delivers the goods with one more out of the way… and it’s a winner. Hands on a Hardbody is a hoedown of heart and humor and a shindig of lifted spirits.
First of all, the score (music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green) is terrific, and under the ever-excellent musical direction of Jake Null, the 19 singer-actors and 8 musicians raise the rafters of the Keegan like a countrified tent revival.
Each contestant is in specifically dire financial straits, and over the course of the musical, we get to know them up close. But everyone is here for the same reason: “If I win this truck, all my troubles are through.”
The book by Doug Wright does a deft job of multiple character development and storyline exposition, and every contestant gets a compelling musical number. While the script’s structure might seem formulaic and predictable, what animates the show’s ample appeal in performance is not so much suspense about who’s going to win the truck but the successive emotional grabbers in the unfolding vignettes of hardship, heartache, and hope.
For the players in this unfair game, this keep-on-truckin’ contest is not only a brass-ring thing; it’s a hopey-faithy thing: a gamble that with luck and the Lord will pay off. What makes Hands on a Hardbody so poignant (when it’s not being irresistibly raise-the-roof rousing) is that the stories it tells echo through the country’s entire paycheck-to-paycheck and no-paycheck population. America does not say, Let them eat cake. America says, Let them play games of chance and pray in a chancel.
The all-company finale, “Keep Your Hands on It,” is a huge crowd-pleaser, and as performed on the Keegan stage, its touching refrain—”If you want something, keep your hands on it”—will stay with you long after.