Hands on a Hardbody, the show now playing at the Unicorn Theater, isn’t particularly sexy. There’s a little bit of romance, but the “hard body” isn’t a person -- it’s a pickup truck on the lot of a fictional Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas. There, ten contestants try to keep one hand on the truck for as long as they can. The last person with a hand on the truck gets to drive it home.
Hands on a Hardbody is a musical theater take on a documentary about the real contest in 1992. That real contest lasted for days, and the sleep-deprived contestants went a bit crazy. The Unicorn's production features its largest company to date, with 15 cast members, a five-piece country band playing at the back of the stage and five technicians.
Directing them all is Missy Koonce. When Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s producing artistic director, sent her the script and the soundtrack, Koonce says she had a strong reaction.
“I had not read anything about it," Koonce says. "It had a short run on Broadway in 2012 and has just recently became available to regional theaters. I got about halfway through the soundtrack and I texted her and I said, 'I want to marry this musical. I want to marry it.'”
Besides being hooked by the music, Koonce was struck by the show's three 2013 Tony Award nominations: Best Original Score for Amanda Green (who co-wrote the lyrics for Bring It On) and Trey Anastasio (frontman for Phish); Keith Carradine for best featured actor in a musical; and Keala Settle for best featured actress in a musical.
Koonce says Green and Anastasio wanted to write music that could stand on its own.
"They wanted to go back to the days when songs from a Broadway musical would be heard on the radio and would become Top 10 hits," she says. "Songs that people would love! And would sing in the shower! In the car!”
The show starts with enthusiasm and joy and everybody’s excited about the contest, but soon begins to grow dark. For various reasons, each contestant is desperate for a break, a bit of luck, an answered prayer.
In "Joy of the Lord," Norma (Victoria Barbee) works to maintain her faith and pumps up the rest of the cast in the process:
The show manages a precarious balance of being entertaining while addressing that looming desperation.
"It was really important to me and Cynthia (Levin) and Angie Benson, our musical director, that they were real people -- people you'd know," Koonce says. "When you watch the documentary you’re like, 'Wow, are you serious? Are these real people?'
"The playwright, Doug Wright, has actually been a little bit kind in the musical to not make them as kooky as they were. But when you’re playing those people with so much sincerity and heart, the audience becomes very attached and vested in who wins."
As the show progresses and various characters give up and take their hands off the truck, Koonce says, "you hear the collective sigh and disappointment. That speaks volumes to what it was we were able to create as an ensemble.”
Pressed to name her favorite songs in the show, Koonce mentions "I’m Gone," a duet between Daniel Beeman and Sara Kennedy, about wanting to get the hell out of their small town.
“I like to sing the boy part, which won’t surprise anyone," Koonce jokes. "It’s right in my range."
She also says "Used to Be," sung by a small group of contestants who are still hanging onto the truck at the end of the show, has one of the most poignant lines she's ever heard: "If it looks the same everywhere you roam/how do you know when you’ve gotten home?"
"I think, man, that is some really great songwriting, talking about how on every corner there’s a Walmart, Walgreen’s, Wendy’s, Applebee's and you can’t tell the difference between any town, any corner anymore.”
It's a sad song, but the show ends on an up note. Because, as Koonce says, it’s musical theater.
Hands on a Hardbody runs through September 28 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St, Kansas City, Mo., 816-531-7529.