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Single Wide
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Emma Stratton with Matt Miner
Photo by Robert Aroujo
The very first installment of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, back in 2004, produced The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which also ended up being one of the Festival's first entries to make a go at a commercial Off-Broadway run. Junk-food enjoyable though that show might have been, however, it was plasticky and mocking in tone, as though it wanted you to know that it disapproved (or at least didn't approve) of its subjects. Single Wide, which George D. Nelson and Jordan Kamalu have contributed to this year's NYMF, takes a radically different approach: It treats trailer park residents as actual human beings. And wouldn't you know it, the result is as honest and touching as anything NYMF has seen this year (and for many in recent memory).

Granted, you might not think so at first. Katy (Emma Stratton) is a single mom who lives in a single-wide trailer with her son, Sam (Matt Miner), and her working mother, Amanda (Stacia Fernandez). Their next-door neighbor is Flossie (Jacqueline Petroccia), who dresses like a stripper and frequently acts like one, letting herself get walked over by all manner of men before she throws them out in a blaze of fireworks. When a ruggedly handsome but not-at-all talkative man named Guy (Derek Carley) moves in nearby, the question for Katy and Flossie becomes: Which of one of them will get him?

Sort of—but not really. There's only one man in Katy's life, Sam, and she's determined to build a life for him that will be better than any their family has known in quite a while. (Amanda had Katy when she was a teen, too.) So rather than bed mates, Katy and Guy become friends, with Guy also unintentionally coming to serve as the father figure Sam has never known. This relationship irks Flossie, who sees it only from afar but can't fight her natural instincts toward jealousy, and seeks to do to them what has always been done to her. Not out of malice: But because she knows nothing other than the constant battle for attention and affection that has consumed her life.

Derek Carley and Stacia Fernandez
Photo by Robert Aroujo
This is powerful, psychologically astute stuff that makes up the core of Nelson's book, between (mostly) adults who acknowledge and want to atone for their missteps, but don't want to wallow in their unhappiness, let alone have it continue on forever. This is not to say they're perfect—far from it, in fact. They're all struggling against their national inclinations to be worse, and that they won't always win: Though it's handled with a gentle hand, a truly terrifying moment occurs late in the evening when Katy is poised to slip and pull Sam down with her into the muck she's shielded him from his whole life, and certainly Flossie gives in to her baser inclinations more than she resists him.

Better still, neither the writers nor director-choreographer Jeff Whiting look down on them. If anything, they want to celebrate the average, everyday heroism they represent: the bravery required to make the most of what you're given and work, however hard you need to, to make more of it on top of that. Because these are real people with real problems, they have plenty to muddle through and thus sing about.

Kamalu's songs (with additional lyrics by Nelson) are liberally dosed with the expected country twang, but don't overly dwell on that; these are musical theatre songs, first and foremost. The opening number, "Payday," is a simple down-home tribute to maximizing one's meager income, and its follow-up, "Overdue," is Katy's affecting way of translating those financial troubles into her own unique language. She, Guy, and Flossie muse on the brighter days that are always ahead ("Waiting for Tomorrow"), and Amanda reflects on the value of sticking to life even when putting yourself out there feels hopeless ("Just Takes One"). Perhaps the best single number in the tune stack is "While You're Young," a lively duet in which Guy and Sam bond over the woman they both love, but the score overall is charming.

So, for that matter, is Stratton, who's bewilderingly a non-Equity performer but plays Katy with all the confidence and emotional polish of a seasoned Broadway pro. Absent of so much as a speck of artifice, Stratton makes Katy at once strong and easy to hurt, a realist who's also a warm, vibrant dreamer; it's a simple, gorgeously sung, and thoroughly winning performance that blossoms and grows just as it should as the show goes along.

Fernandez looks far too young for her role, but brings a palpable, sympathetic strength to Amanda that shows where Katy gets her drive and resilience. Carley underplays every part of Guy, which only draws you further into his mystery. And Miner is that rare kind of child actor who doesn't seem to be acting, but instead living onstage just as he might in real life. Petroccia and Maclain Nelson (who is also credited with "Additional Book Material"), as Flossie's rocky boyfriend Bodie, give more traditional and somewhat less satisfying performances, but still do well.

Though Single Wide is thoroughly satisfying, it's also clearly still a work in progress. The ensemble roles of Freddi and Ali, despite being ably played here by Maya Landau and Alex Lanning, are not as fleshed out as they could be, and occasionally make confusing contributions. Though Katy's 11-o'clock number, "Microwave Life," has all the ingredients of a serious show-stopper, its lyrics come too close to parody for that to happen. And although almost all of the relationships are beautifully rendered, Katy's and Guy's is oddly thin, and doesn't go quite as far as it seems to want to.

That points up one other thing: In contrast to many NYMF shows, which are based on flawed or shaky premises that can't support a full show, Single Wide actually feels too short. Running about 100 minutes without intermission, it all but cries out for more time and space to let us dig even deeper into the hearts and souls of the winning people to whom it introduces us, and whom we can't stop loving because of how well we know them and how much we want them to succeed. This may technically be a weakness, but it's tough to think of a better problem for Single Wide—or any musical—to have.

Single Wide
at The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015
Tickets online, Venue and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015 Guide and Tickets

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