If you only see only one musical this year loosely based on a 1997 documentary about people in Texas trying to win a Nissan truck by being the last person to keep their hand on it, it may as well be Hands on a Hardbody. Yes, it’s easy to raise a mocking eyebrow at the unusual pedigree of this show — and we haven’t even gotten to the almost-as-unlikely part about the songs being co-written by Fort Worth-born but New Jersey-raised Phish frontman Trey Anastasio.
Regardless, there is much to enjoy here, from Hunter Foster’s bullying portrayal of a two-time car-winning champion — if that’s the right word — to Keala Settle’s turn as the desperate, God-fearing Norma. On Settle’s showcase track, the gospel song ”Joy of the Lord,” the cast utilizes the show’s main prop, an actual truck, to nice Stomp-like effect.
The actors also include the great Keith Carradine, who is probably best known now for appearing on Showtime’s Dexter but who both sang and wrote the Oscar-winning song ”I’m Easy” for Robert Altman’s 1975 movie Nashville. Sadly, few of the numbers in Hands on a Hardbody are as memorable as that melancholic ditty. The tunes that work best find Anastasio and cowriter-lyricist Amanda Green at their musically Phishiest — notably the bitter, Foster-sung ”God Answered My Prayers.” But the pair’s excursions into country, blues, and a clutch of other genres rarely rise above the generic. Moreover, while the songwriters and book author Doug Wright clearly regard this insane competition as a prism through which to consider such weighty subjects as war, religion, and racism, it is rather difficult to engage with such ruminative choreography when the cast is literally dancing around an enormous car. B-
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)