The musical “Hands on a Hardbody” may not be as bland as the Keegan Theatre production makes it look, but then again, maybe it is. The upside of this short-lived 2013 Broadway show includes the solidly crafted country-blues tunes by Phish founder Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, which sound pretty good with nearly 20 voices kicking in. A musical about low-key heartlanders with real-life problems is a fresh change of pace, too.
The Keegan’s intimate production, which marks the musical’s D.C. debut, gets the working-class vibe of the Texans competing for a truck by keeping a hand on it for days at a time; the last person standing wins. This really happened: The musical is based on a 1997 documentary, and co-directors Elena Velsaco and Mark A. Rhea take seriously the plight of people desperate enough to stand on hot pavement and go without sleep in hopes of just a little good luck.
“That ain’t living, that’s just hangin’ on,” one of the characters sings in a line that could go for all of them.
Performance-wise, though, it’s stuck in first gear. The understated cast doesn’t do a lot with the short scenes as we meet this cross-section of America — the vet in distress, the married couple fraying after 30 years, the borderline psycho who won this contest before (and whose wife drove away in the prize). A young man named Jesús (Andres Alejandro Ponce) gets hassled by a xenophobic white employee (Kari Ginsburg) at the dealership sponsoring the contest, and it’s only slightly interesting that he calls her a wall.
What comes next is the kind of thing that works, as Jesús launches into the defiant tune “Born in Laredo,” driven by a twanging, sidewinding guitar. Music director Jake Null’s eight-piece band gets the swing of the score, with a rock foundation plus mandolin and even fiddle for your deeper-type feelings. The choral swells are warmhearted, from the opening “Human Drama Kind of Thing” through the closing “Keep Your Hands on It.”
There are opportunities for breakout performances, but the production doesn’t have that horsepower, and though there’s a small pickup in the center of the stage, nothing really picturesque happens around it. Maybe the show, which closed less than a month after opening on Broadway, really works if you can get it to full throttle, but this model feels pedestrian.
Hands on a Hardbody, book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green. Directed by Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea. Choreography, Elena Velasco; set design, Matthew J. Keenan; costumes, Alison Samantha Johnson; lights, Jason Arnold; projections, Richie Montgomery; sound design, Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Through April 6 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $36-$58. 202-265-3767. keegantheatre.com.