The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Every time someone mentions the Stray Dog Theatre, at the Tower Grove Abbey, I've been saying "I have NEVER seen a bad show there!" And now, finally, I've jinxed them.
Not that this is a "bad" show: it has a lot of good musical numbers, a few really good ones, and a very accomplished cast and crew, too. But the jokes, at the expense of "white trash" America, consistently under-cut the deeper pursuit of character, so we are almost never surprised by "who they are," and never really make a breakthrough to caring much for any of them (with the occasional exception of those played by Lindsey Jones and Jamie Lynn Marble). It's like watching a news documentary about the survivors of some devastating tornado, or even "just" a drug-related shooting on the evening news, and everyone looks like an idiot on the TV footage: it creates a distance between the victims and our sympathies.
So, don't expect to see anything on the order of the great Sordid Lives, where most of the characters have some depth, and the conflicts in their lives result in some internal thrashing around, to create understanding and come to some sort of accommodation with their own tumultuous realities. In that trailer park play, the characters were mostly lovable grotesqueswhich is an interesting contradictionand here, they're not grotesque enough. This lapse is surprising in a work by the solid young director Justin Been, overseen by the excellent artistic director Gary F. Bell. But, of course, you can't just put Sordid Lives on stage every season, like a passion play. At least Stray Dog Theatre took a chance on something similar, instead.
A "girl trio" in this newer trailer park ("Armadillo Acres") provides a good narrative structure, but Kim Furlow and Kay Love lack that overall, dyed-in-the-wool grotesqueness; and the funny, fearless Jessica Tilghman can't establish the full picture of twisted, visible dissipation all by herself. Lindsey Jones, as the agoraphobic housewife, is very nearly great, but the authors (songs by David Nehls and book by Betsy Kelso in 2004) spend so much time sabotaging her with their jokes that we (and Ms. Jones) are hindered from really getting inside her character's head very well. It's a comedy about characters with low aspirations, written by people with low aspirations.
Likewise, Jamie Lynn Marble, as the newly-arrived stripper, is very nearly great, but only falls short because of the material, which barely allows her more than a second at a time to take a good hard look in the mirror (although she does fill the bill as a glorious and beautiful grotesque, herself). Actually, I want to be clear: Ms. Marble and Ms. Jones probably are truly great, and Ms. Tilghman right behind them, but they just can't outrun the onslaught of laugh-track-ready jokes.
Zachary Stefaniak is soulful, almost to the point of being mystical, as Ms. Jones' wandering husband, and Keith Parker Jr. gives it his all as a jealous boyfriend on the loose, making an insane cross-country drive. Ms. Furlow is terrific in a dream sequence as a scandal-mongering TV host, and all the park residents are fantastic in "Storm's A-Brewin'," the big disco number. Credit where credit is due, this show can be a lot of fun. But, sadly, the actors probably know more about their characters than the authors themselves.
Through August 18, 2012, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., less than a mile south of Grand and I-44. The theater is served by a medium-sized, guarded parking lot. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org