Given the proliferation of black female backup groups in recent musicals Hairspray and Caroline, Or Change, it was clearly only a matter of time before someone would come up with the idea of putting a white girl group onstage. That moment has finally arrived with the unforgettable redneck trailer trash trio of Betty, Pickles, and Lin, the most entertaining part of the enjoyable, if silly new show The Great American Trailer Park Musical.
If musicals were given Nutritional Content stickers, The Great American Trailer Park Musical would probably rank somewhere around a bag of Doritos, but like that favorite snack food, you can't help note how tasty and guiltily addictive this musical is. Who cares if there's an inconsequential love affair made up of one-dimensional characters at the show's core, as long as Betty, Pickles, and Lin are on stage (which is a good portion of the show), the audience is in for a laugh riot.
Serving as a sort of white trash Greek chorus who frequently break the fourth wall, the three women have the show's funniest zingers and best songs, and impersonate everything from hotel maids to the Andrew Sisters to 1970s polyester-clad ABBA-like disco queens. Betty (Robin Baxter), the loud, in-your-face landlady of Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in Starke, FL where the show takes place, opens the musical with the score's catchiest tune, "This Side of the Tracks." She is soon joined by gal pals Lin (Marya Grandy), whose husband is a death row inmate, and the daft Pickles (Amanda Ryan Paige), who suffers from hysterical pregnancies. Complete with outrageously bad hair (with wig design by Greg Baccarini) and appropriately tacky day-glo clothing (by costume designer Joseph J. Egan), the women are the epitome of every white trash stereotype seen on The Jerry Springer Show, Ricki Lake, and Montel Williams combined. Given "classic" girl group backup moves and snazzy choreography by director Betsy Kelso (including an inventively funny number involving toilet brushes), the women, despite the show's out-of-control scenarios, actually come off as the most well-developed figures in the whole piece, making me count the minutes until they reappeared.
Which brings us to the rest of the show's inconsequential meanderings. Living with Betty, Lin, and Pickles in Armadillo Acres are Jeannie (Carter Calvert), an agoraphobic housewife who hasn't left her mobile home since the kidnapping of her baby in 1983, and her sex-starved flannel-wearing husband Norbert (Dan Sharkey), who works in a toll booth. Enter Pippi, (Urban Cowboy's Jenn Colella), a stripper who takes up residence in the trailer park, having left her magic marker-huffing boyfriend Duke (Geoffrey Scheer) in Oklahoma City. Predictably, Pippi "hooks up" with Norbert causing no amount of grief for Jeannie. The love triangle antics culminate in an outrageous act one finale at a seedy 1970s motel with the entire cast attired in hysterically funny animal print clothing.
Though the love triangle is given its fair share of laugh-out-loud jokes by book writer Betsy Kelso, composer/lyricist David Nehls has loaded down the show with too many heartfelt ballads, which if pretty, feel as if they are from another show entirely. Jeannie, stuck in her mobile home with only a velvet picture of Oprah Winfrey and a television for companionship, is the principal victim of such melodramatic ditties. Luckily for the audience, Carter Calvert as Jeannie has a voice rich and soulful. That said, how can we take Jeannie's songs of longing and disappointment seriously when they're framed on all sides by the outrageous sex-driven, foul-mouthed, mullet humor of Kelso's book? Maybe the show should be on an episode of Jerry Springer for schizophrenic musicals that think they're both parodic comedies and emotional love stories. If anything, Kelso and Nehls (at least in the show's other numbers) have worked so hard and succeeded in poking fun at the dimwitted inhabitants of Armadillo Acres that the show would actually be better off it just went all the way and more fully satirized the show's love triangle as well.
Despite the unevenness of the show's tone, Nehls's songs, with their country/rock flavor, are bouncy and melodic, if not quite as strong in the lyrics department. I'm still trying to make up my mind over whether the verse "I gotta make like a nail and press on," a lyric that epitomizes Nehls's humor, is horribly good or terribly bad. At least Nehls's music is well served by the entire cast. Jenn Colella does the best she can with a dull part, showing off her comedic talents in the TV talk show parody number "Great American TV Show," while Geoffrey Scheer infuses Duke's penchant for magic marker fumes with gleeful giddiness. Still, it's Baxter, Grandy, and Paige as trailer trash divas who steal the show, almost making one wish there was a half-hour sitcom regularly devoted to these women.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical might do little to advance the state of the musical theater, but I'd be lying if I said that the show isn't entertaining and a whole lot of fun. You might not want to take up permanent residence with the folks of Armadillo Acres, but they're a delightfully crazy group of people to spend a couple of hours with.
New York Musical Theatre Festival