Arts Reviews

The Great American Trailer Park Musical Reviewed

By Doug Strassler Oct 13, 2005, 6:03 GMT

Kaitlin Hopkins, Orfeh, and Shuler Hensley
It's no secret that the state of the art in commercial theater has seen a remarkable downturn in recent years.  With a dearth of original material being explored only Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change and Urinetown come to mind on the Great White Way, the bar seems to have been irreversibly lowered.  What marks the difference between copycat humor and clever send-up? 

Betsy Kelso and David Nehls seem to have found a fine way to negotiate that fine line with The Great American Trailer Park Musical.  It's early, but this should prove to be the most enjoyable show of the season.  Kelso directs and wrote the book, while Nehls composed the music and lyrics for this riotous yet soapy look at trailer park life: "As the Double-Wide Turns" would not be an inappropriate title.

Shuler Hensley, who swept the theater awards circuit for his three-dimensional Jud Fry in 2002's Oklahoma revival, again brings nuance to a lumbering lunk, in this case Norbert.  His marriage to high school sweetheart Jeannie (played by Kaitlin Hopkins) has lost its spark after 20 years, hurt by her agoraphobia.  She won't step outside her trailer.

It doesn't take long for Norbert to start looking elsewhere Pippi the stripper (Orfeh, of Saturday Night Fever fame) blows into town.  Soon enough he finds himself torn between his two lovers, with his predicament commented on by a trio of trailer park neighbors.  There hasn't been a musical Greek chorus used as successfully as the one comprised by Betty (Linda Hart), Linoleum (Marya Grandy, the only re remaining cast member from Trailer Park's original incarnation at the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival), and Pickles (Leslie Kritzer) since Little Shop of Horrors.  Kritzer is a particular scene-stealer as Pickles, a ding bat with a penchant for hysterical pregnancies. All of the ladies are great as these tough-talkin' broads, especially when providing background vocals for Jeannie's number Flushed Down the Pipes (replete with toilet cleaning products as props) and the Weathergirls-lite showstopper "Storm's A-Brewin."

Nehls demonstrates his flair for musical versatility with a book that ranges from country balladry to rhythm-and-blues to rockabilly sensibility.  In a landscape filled with songs that often err on the side of being too esoteric or too innocuous, he has concocted a slew of catchy songs, including the Norbert/Jeannie duet "Owner of My Heart" and the finale "Make Like a Nail" (in which they decide to, ahem, "press on.")  The only mis-step, musically speaking, is "The Great American TV Show," a number meant to mock the Jerry Springer/Sally Jesse Raphael culture that runs out of gas early and continues far too long.  Another touch that never quite gels is Nehls' decision to have Kritzer play a friend from Pippi's past in Oklahoma working at a flan stand.  This sounds funny, but what does flan have to do with Oklahoma?

Nonetheless, Trailer Park's outstanding ensemble of theater troubadours shines, including Wayne Wilcox (best known for a recurring role on TV'S Gilmore girls), a wonderful surprise as Pippi's violent boyfriend Duke.

All of this is familiar territory, but a cast so teeming with talent is able to make Kelso's and Nehls' material rich.  They know not to mistake sheer cartoonishness for true comedy.  A show as fun as Trailer Park doesn't have to be smart as long as it has heart.  Luckily, this show has both, and in spades.

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The Great American Trailer Park Musical closes today

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