You've heard of junk-food theatre, but have you heard of trash-food theatre? Or, more specifically, white-trash-food theatre? It's a genre not often seen in Manhattan these days - audiences (and, one suspects, producers) are still suffering from indigestion brought about by the form's quintessential example, Urban Cowboy, two years ago.
That show, though, presented itself as a three-course meal; The Great American Trailer Park Musical knows better. This wheel-spinning, mud-splattering good time of a show, which just opened at Dodger Stages, is the theatrical equivalent of a bag of Doritos, complete with orange residue left on your fingertips: You know every minute is bad for you, but you can't get enough. It's a musical for those of the Jerry Springer generation unwilling to stoop to Mamma Mia! for their cheap kicks.
Yes, it's highly embarrassing that this show, written by Betsy Kelso (book and direction) and David Nehls (music and lyrics) is as entertaining as it is: Broken-down jokes, like broken-down satellite dishes, abound; all the women keep their hair as high as a elephant's eye; and most of the songs sound like rejected bonus tracks from home-recorded country-music CDs. This shouldn't all be able to come together in any form attractive to New York theatregoers, and given the postponed opening dates, reported last-minute revisions, and the late replacement of a choreographer (by the fine Sergio Trujillo), it looked like it wouldn't.
But as the show received enough notice at last year's New York Musical Theatre Festival to survive the trip here, one can't dismiss it out of hand. And indeed, something about it defies easy categorization as a disaster: The hit-miss ratio for the jokes and songs is roughly 1:1 (not great for a 95-minute show), Derek McLane's kitsch'n-sink set design is too turbulently tacky even for these surroundings, and nearly every minute of the show winks as contemporary musicals so often do when they have no natural heart. Yet, frighteningly, the show works overall - sometimes you just have to go along with the ride, even if it's a journey over bumpy roads in a cramped, gas-leaking motor home.
Such a motor home might well take up residence in Armadillo Acres, the show's Starke, Florida setting, which is most prominently occupied by agoraphobe Jeannie (Kaitlin Hopkins), who hasn't left her trailer in 20 years, and her dim-witted, overly anxious husband Norbert (Shuler Hensley). Their marriage, rocky after the devastating loss of their son, is tested further by a new arrival to the park, the sexy stripper Pippi (Orfeh), who's running from her past into the arms of the too-willing Norbert.
This show, like so many of its ilk, defies plot, even ridicules it. What you think probably happens in the plot, happens. Stereotypes are exploited with wild abandon (you can't be shocked that a line like "Knick-knacks make a trailer home" found its way into this show), lower-class anti-values are mercilessly mocked, and, yes, even a makeshift Jerry Springer-like TV show is enacted onstage as a way for the troubles to be boiled down into the most monosyllabic of theatrical language.
But who could expect a thrillingly trashy Greek chorus of trailer-park matrons (Linda Hart, Marya Grandy, Leslie Kritzer), whose prophetic comments and hysterical musical stylings (they sing backup on nearly every song) all but redefine the girl-group-as-cultural-commentator craze that found its glittering apotheosis in Little Shop of Horrors? Or a number called "Storm's A-Brewin" that applies the metaphor of an electrical storm to Pippi's presence with enough show-stopping electricity to trump every musical that opened on Broadway last season? Joys like these are rare enough in today's biggest hits.
So are luminescent female star comics, and Trailer Park has a doozy in Kritzer. Once Paper Mill's all-conquering Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, she's now refined (and coarsened) herself into a shrewd comedic powerhouse, and the rickety dance moves (approximating a folding chair in an earthquake), dazed-and-confused expressions, and flawless timing she employs here help her steal every scene she's in. This is not an exaggeration: every scene.
Her triumph is only less than total because she doesn't have much to steal from: Orfeh is a fierce vocalist, but less compelling as an actress, at least in this role; Hopkins is bizarrely, brazenly muted here, unrecognizable as the actress who stopped the show every five seconds in Bat Boy; Hensley basically recreates his languid Jud Fry from Trevor Nunn's languid Oklahoma!; and Wayne Wilcox is miscast as Pippi's mysterious, violent boyfriend, whose connection to the plot is only surprising if you sleep through all the exposition.
Not that that's easy: Markas Henry's gorgeously gaudy costumes, Donald Holder's lights, and Peter Fitzgerald's blaring sound design are rivet your attention and whet your appetite. If Kritzer proves the most delectable and nutritious element of The Great American Trailer Park Musical, there are enough other crumbs here to nosh on. And, in my book, dances with toilet brushes and songs with lyrics like "I gotta make like a nail / And press on" are worth at least a few hundred empty calories.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical