Standing around the red pickup truck at center stage are 10 hard-luck cases braving the Texas heat in an endurance test: Last one to take his or her hand off it gets to drive away with the prize.
That’s not exactly your standard recipe for a Broadway musical, so give the “Hands on a Hardbody” team a thumb up for audacity.
It includes composer-lyricist Amanda Green (working with Trey Anastasio of the band Phish) and book author Doug Wright, whose ambitious works include “Grey Gardens” and “High Fidelity.”
But it’s a Sisyphean proposition: Push as hard as you want, this rock just doesn’t roll very far. Set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams frame the truck against a sun-blanched backdrop of faded signs and the generic flatness of an auto dealership.
Occasionally director Neil Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo break the rules by letting the characters pull away for solos or dances.
But instead of flights of fancy, we get rote production numbers for a standard-issue motley of characters: the devout Mom doing it for Jesus, the divorced Dad out to prove he can reprise a previous win, the health-challenged middle-ager who needs to defy death, etc.
The feeble lyrics are a surprise from the gifted Green. They rarely rise above “If you live in Texas and you ain’t got a truck, Buddy you’re stuck.”
The folksy folks who populate “Hands on a Hardbody” are easy to like. I confess to a special affection for the deceptively easygoing character JD Drew, played by Keith Carradine. Long ago on Broadway he was another avuncular son of the southwest, Will Rogers, singing “I never met a man I didn’t like,” a lyric co-written by Green’s father, Adolph Green.
There’s nothing unlikable about “Hands on a Hardbody,” but little to love, either.
At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Information: +1- 877-250-2929 http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **
City Center’s Encores! series has pulled out all the stops for “It’s a Bird...It’s a Plane...It’s Superman.” They include a comic-book set reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein, a rousing cast having fun with the material and, as always, the inspired musical direction of Rob Berman.
Presented on Broadway in 1966, “Superman” is by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who’d had a massive hit with “Bye Bye Birdie.” Strouse (“Annie”) is one of Broadway’s most accessible composers and he and Adams led Broadway’s struggle to come to terms with rock and roll (not always successfully).
Actors frugg and twist while Superman (solid Edward Watts) flies around saving Lois Lane (thrilling Jenny Powers) and making the world safe from the evil Dr. Sedgwick (David Pittu, glorious in his wiggedly lunatic element).
Encores artistic director Jack Viertel has streamlined the original book to focus the songs. John Rando directs with his usual effusiveness and Joshua Bergasse adds inventive choreography.
It still isn’t much of a show, but Strouse and Adams always had some magic up their sleeves. Here it comes in the song “We Don’t Matter At All,” a bit of Broadway-style nihilism almost worthy of “Carousel.”
Through March 24 at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212, or online at www.nycitycenter.org. Rating: ***1/2
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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