Trailer parks get a bad rap. I’m not saying a lot of the stereotypes aren’t true (there’s often a kernel of truth in such preconceived notions, though often warped), but I’m sure that there are plenty of kind, sane, and peaceful people that live in double wides. Fortunately, none of those people are in Dare to Defy Productions’ The Great American Trailer Park Musical, a rollicking indictment against the inhabitants of a trailer park where life is a soap opera but with bigger hair and more makeup.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical, with music and lyrics by David Nehls and a book by Betsy Kelso, ran for a few months off-Broadway in the fall of 2005; since then it’s become a favorite of regional and non-professional groups across the country looking for a musical more contemporary than the usual stalwarts of West Side Story and Annie. Set in Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in Starke, Florida, the story focuses on Norbert, a toll collector, and his agoraphobic wife, Jeanne, and how their lives are turned upside down when bad girl stripper Pippi becomes one of their neighbors; little does everyone know that Pippi is on the run from a crazy ex-boyfriend who is hot on her trail. Did I mention that some of the other residents are named Linoleum and Pickles?
There isn’t a bad performance in the show, with special recognition earned by Tia Seay, Lisa Glover, and Angie Thacker. Ms. Seay really whoops it up as Betty, the queen bee and manager of the trailer park, her strong and bold voice a pleasure to enjoy as she comments on the action of the residents. Lisa Glover is similarly fearless as Pippi, the stripper without a heart of gold; she and Ms. Seay hit the fiercest notes and wear the tackiest clothing without fear. Ms. Thacker’s Jeannie is the only character with any deep pathos in the play, so it’s only natural that she doesn’t come off as comical as everyone around her; what’s unnatural is the unexpected sweetness of her singing voice, clear and with vulnerability that is disarming.
Rob Willoughby (who also plays the befuddled Norbert with prickly grit) has outdone himself in designing the set for Armadillo Acres in such a small space. The trailer facades are colorful and functional, especially the way the large picture window of Norbert and Jeannie’s trailer allows us to see directly into their home and glimpse the funny photos on display and odd furniture. A sign in the rear rotates when the location changes to “The Litter Box Show Palace,” the strip club where Pippi (Lisa Glover) works, and Jason Vogel’s lighting changes accordingly to perfectly fit the shift.
Director Matthew Smith stages and moves the actors quite specifically so that they don’t feel like they are on top of each other or in each other’s way, a definite problem that has been sidestepped in working in what could be seen as quite a cramped space. The only time when the presentation falters is when action is blocked by the first few rows of the audience when activity takes place too far downstage to the right, namely during Ms. Glover’s dance routine in which she motorboats Ms. Seay and walks away with lipstick marks around her décolleté. It’s a bold moment where Ms. Glover really goes for it, but I wonder if it was obscured for a lot of the audience (it was partially hidden where I was sitting) because it wasn’t being performed on some sort of raised platform.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical is intended to be performed in two acts, but this production is presented with no break for around an hour and forty minutes. The limited stadium seating and the closeness of the set and actors to the audience makes this a wise decision as any stragglers would have to walk through the action to get to their seat, a difficult interruption of the all-important fourth wall. This approach also helps the play keep up a certain momentum that would be less effective with a break. So remember – get your potty break in before the show, and know that there will be no late seating!
My friend and I enjoyed Dare to Defy’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical, but our laughter was no match for all the giggles heard all around us. The show isn’t deep, keeping its comedy very much on the surface, and that’s just the way it is played here. I’ve seen the show before, and yet somehow a few of the plot twists still threw me this time around! Some of the language and situations push this into PG-13 terrain, but I’d still consider it a fun show for families with teens. In fact, it’s irreverent shows like The Great American Trailer Park Musical that may connect with younger audiences wanting to look beyond the typically “safe” plays performed at their schools. If having a restaurant named “Grits and Tits” offends you, stay home; if, like me, you find it funny, get a ticket before they’re all gone.
*** out of ****
The Great American Trailer Park Musical continues through to January 16th in the Mathile Theatre at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center located on West 2nd Street in downtown Dayton (about an hour outside of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/