In Hands on a Hardbody, now at La Jolla Playhouse, contestants can’t let go of the prize.
  • In Hands on a Hardbody, now at La Jolla Playhouse, contestants can’t let go of the prize.
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Hands on a Hardbody: the title of the world-premiere musical sounds like an erotic fantasy — or, more to the point, a senior citizen’s impossible dream. Nope, even bigger: to the ten contestants vying in Floyd King Nissan’s annual competition, it could mean salvation. Why? The Lord might be the judge.

The hardbody’s a fully loaded, $22,000 Nissan truck. And the task sounds simple: just keep one hand on the midnight-blue chassis at all times. You can’t tilt, squat, or lean, and you must wear gloves (wouldn’t want to smear the icon with fingerprints). You get a 15-minute break every six hours. You’ll need it for food-pipe issues and to escape the 99-degree heat and 98-percent humidity of Longview, East Texas. Last one standing wins.

Contests like this, and much reality TV, are detective stories in reverse: instead of nabbing the villain, they eliminate pretenders and reveal the hero. The contest for the pickup sounds like an “immunity challenge” on Survivor that goes on for days. But it’s worth it, one says, because “a truck to a Texan is just like his hat.”

From afar, Hardbody looks like an artistic dare: the theatrical demands are as stern as the contest. Write a musical about a grueling endurance test, where people are stuck in one spot. Tell everyone’s story, plus the dealer, his secretary, some spouses. You must keep the contestants linked to the truck, though. Whenever they break free, it undercuts the chain-gang tedium of the event. The grind’s the through line, though it practically freezes the stage picture.

Hardbody gets off to a flying start. As the cast roams around the stage, “It’s a Human Drama Thing” introduces characters and brings the audience up to speed: the truck’s a metaphor. It can fill a giant gap for each entrant (also an irony: the American Dream’s made in Japan). After the opening grabber, however, the 90-minute first act settles into an imitation Chorus Line. Individual songs in Act One are catchy folk-rock, country and western. But nine of them, though sung in different styles, have the same Chorus Line function: they explain. Practically everyone has a song to fill in backstory and hopes and smidgens of conflict — i.e., nine versions of “I really need this...truck.”

The motives are formulaic: the book links each person with one of the country’s current ills — joblessness, housing, war. The banners of relevance often feel tacked-on. This happens, in part, because ten contestants — and mega-talented author Doug Wright — have little time to plead their case. Jesus Peña wants money for school; JD, who fell off an oil rig, requires a reason to go on; Benny Perkins, a former winner, needs a new ride since his ex drove off with the original; Norma Valverde wants the Lord to “show me the strength I didn’t know I had.” Six other characters add hopes as well.

A production number stands out. In her program bio, Keala Settle writes, unforgettably: “Who cares what I’ve done in the past: we’re all here now. LET’S ENJOY THE EVENING.” But where has she been? As the mystical Norma Valverde, Settle comes out of nowhere, sings “Joy of the Lord,” and levitates the Mandell Weiss Theatre.

Much stage-laughter feels forced. Not Settle’s. She starts laughing believably, even musically, and cannot stop. The laughing fit evolves into a hymn. Soon the cast joins in (they all drop character, but who cares?). Legs kick high up. Fists pound “bring in da noise” rhythms on the pickup. The joint jumps. “Joy of the Lord” is the first full, and full-stage, production number since the opening. Then another song intrudes, upstages the climax, and shrinks the stage picture back down.

Settle and the cast guarantee entertainment value, even when the concept flags. Keith Carradine plays JD with last-ditch resolve (and sings with his memorable, “I’m Easy” voice in Nashville). Jon Rua makes Jesus Peña a contender, though the contest shackles the amazing dancer (in the Old Globe’s Somewhere). Hunter Foster’s Benny, the savvy contestant eager to win again, injects much-needed abrasive comments into the dialogue. As Chris, the war veteran, David Larsen sings “Stronger” with conviction, though why this song truncates “Joy of the Lord” is a puzzle.

It’s hard to recall a theatrical enterprise like Hardbody. The contests of reality TV come to mind, and the grim movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? But these have freedom of movement. Hardbody has the equivalent of a White Elephant plunked centerstage. Plus the need to introduce a dozen people before things can commence. Director Neil Pepe and choreographer Benjamin Millepied succeed, more often than not, in keeping the stage alive. And the design team created a partial solution: a gutted Nissan spins around with a dancer’s agility. By the end of the 2-hour, 40-minute evening, however, even the magical mystery pickup becomes a commonplace. ■

Hands on a Hardbody, book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Green

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive

Directed by Neil Pepe; cast: Keith Carradine, Allison Case, Hunter Foster, Jay Armstrong Johnson, David Larsen, Jacob Ming Trent, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Mary Gordon Murray, Jim Newman, Connie Ray, Jon Rua, Keala Settle, Dale Soules, Scott Wakefield, William Youmans; scenic design, Christine Jones; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; music director, Zachary Dietz

Playing through June 17; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010

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