"Hands on a Hardbody" may well be the best musical ever written about 10 people holding onto a parked truck. But if you go into the show wondering why a gifted creative team would want to adapt the 1997 documentary about poor Texans in an endurance contest for a red Nissan pickup, you are likely to leave wondering the same thing.
This is not to deny a few nice moments, touching scenes and trenchant music in the two-and-a-half-hour festival of earnest, inspirational banality. Clearly, Pulitzer-winning author Doug Wright (the boundary-pushing "I Am My Own Wife"), lyricist/co-composer Amanda Green (the endearing "Bring It On") and co-composer/orchestrator Trey Anastasio (founding member of the alt-rock jam band Phish) were after something a little different for Broadway.
Perhaps they and director Neil Pepe were challenged by the limitations of the improbable setup, which, except for the occasional rest break and reveries, requires contestants to keep at least one gloved hand on the prize. And it is likely that everyone recognized timeliness in desperate tales of foreclosures, unemployment and soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Instead of originality, alas, the show is a combination of "A Chorus Line," the musical based on Studs Terkel's "Working," the marathon-dance movie "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and a TV reality show with an extremely ingratiating country-western twang. All the characters get their "God, I hope I get it" chances in the spotlight, as the lyrics push to convince us this is a "human drama kind of thing," even an "American dream."
Everyone is a stereotype and gets a variation on a dirt-picking song genre. Most impressive is the aging, injured rig worker, played with easygoing, electrified moroseness by Keith Carradine. Hunter Foster growls with unvarnished bigotry as the bitter blowhard. The Hispanic kid (Jon Rua) must not be underestimated. The big black fellow (the irrepressible Jacob Ming-Trent) gets the gospel numbers, along with the ultra-pious woman (Keala Settle) with a line to joy on her headphones.
Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo keep things moving, as much as possible in this context. As people tire, they push the truck around in a slow-motion glow. But each time someone gave up, it was hard not to count the dwindling remainders with something like relief.
WHAT "Hands on a Hardbody"
WHERE Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.
INFO $55-$155; 877-250-2929; handsonahardbody.com
BOTTOM LINE Earnest and banal, despite lively music