There are probably few harder-working ensembles on stage in New York right now than the talented performers in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.” But even a committed cast without a single weak link struggles to breathe freshness into such a crassly cartoonish show, its multitude of variations on a single joke pretty much played out long ago. Sure, even in the post-Jerry Springer era, some folks might still find the world of spray-on cheese, hoochy-koochy dancers, Bacon Bits and Magic Marker huffers hilarious. For others, the smile will begin to fade before the opening song ends.
It’s not that “Trailer Park” is enjoyment-free, as audience reactions at Dodger Stages can attest. The derivative numbers are relentlessly peppy and sung with gusto by some terrific voices; vulgar as they often are, many of the jokes are funny; and, in a gallery of gleefully unsubtle stereotypes, there’s one priceless comic characterization. But overall, this raucous show has all the cutting edge of a “Mama’s Family” rerun and might ultimately play better in the hinterland than in more sophisticated markets like New York.
That’s if the media and the American public’s rediscovery since the Katrina disaster of the poor and uneducated hasn’t rendered the denizens of a “manufactured housing community” in hurricane-plagued North Florida a sour target for humor.
A hit in the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival, the show’s book by Betsy Kelso is a roughly stitched together series of sketches that more or less constitutes a narrative. Some accomplished hands have been brought in to help fortify the material for commercial presentation: Derek McLane’s set and Markas Henry’s costumes supply the appropriate garish look; Donald Holder’s lighting is similarly vibrant; Sergio Trujillo’s droll choreography is amusing in a way that’s refreshingly low-key compared to the overriding tone here.
But while precision execution might have helped disguise the limitations of a comic musical even this obvious, comedy writer-performer Kelso’s inexperience as a director shows in the clumsy blocking and unsteady focus.
The story is told by a Greek chorus of three Armadillo Acres residents: Benign bad-ass Betty (Linda Hart), the trailer park’s widowed leasing manager; Lin (Marya Grandy), named for the Linoleum floor on which she was born, whose husband is on death row waiting to fry; and Pickles (Leslie Kritzer), a 17-year-old blonde “dumber than a box of hair” and prone to hysterical pregnancies.
Addressing the audience directly, the ladies introduce toll collector Norbert (Shuler Hensley) and his agoraphobic wife, Jeannie (Kaitlin Hopkins), who hasn’t left their trailer since 1983. A recap of that year traces Jeannie’s trauma to a bad perm and the kidnapping of their child, Elvis.
Jeannie vows to overcome her phobia in time to attend the Ice Capades for their 20th anniversary. But her progress is slowed when exotic dancer Pippi (Orfeh) comes between man and wife, striking up a passionate affair with lonely Norbert. More complications arise when Pippi’s substance-sniffing boyfriend, Duke (Wayne Wilcox), descends on the trailer park, having pursued her from Oklahoma City to Florida.
Aside from the welcome intrusion of a couple of emotional ballads, David Nehls’ songs have a twangy, up-tempo sound that’s pleasant enough even if they do all seem vaguely familiar and a little interchangeable.
The showstopper (evidently designed as an act one closer before the musical was squeezed during previews into an intermissionless single act) is “Storm’s A-Brewin’,” a brazen disco rip-off of “It’s Raining Men,” replete with Hart doing some fearsome Patti LaBelle-style caterwauling and Hensley in full Meatloaf/Jim Steinman mode.
In a musical too often ruled by the tiresome profanity-equals-laughs equation (“Rendezvous … That’s French for fuckin’ “), there’s a lazy tendency to assume that cheesy pop-culture references or tacky props will work comic magic. Despite the foxy frontline presence of Hart, channeling Ethel Merman via Sally Jessy Raphael, “Great American TV Show,” which riffs on daytime dirty-laundry yackfests becomes belabored, while chorines using toilet brushes as microphones in the love-gone-bad song, “Flushed Down the Pipes,” is funny for about seven seconds. The nasty humor in Wilcox’s “Road Kill” number has more kick.
Hopkins and Hensley do a fine job on the more tender songs like the pretty, country-flavored “Owner of My Heart,” and “But He’s Mine/It’s Never Easy” with Orfeh. And the latter’s power pipes are put to especially good use in the finale, “Make Like a Nail.”
While the entire cast is consistently better than the material, honors go to the delightful Kritzer. Playing Pickles like a Skipper doll brought to life, her screwy line readings and asinine facial expressions are unpredictable enough to make a standard-issue bubblehead into an endearing, almost original character, something the rest of the show never achieves.