What's New on the Rialto
A Trailer Park Musical
By Beth Herstein
"When you have a title like The Great American Trailer Park Musical, you've got to deliver on that," says David Nehls, who composed the score for a show with exactly that title. Betsy Kelso, who wrote the book for the show, currently in previews at Dodger Stages, agrees. "It's like, how far are you willing to go with something?" she says. "What are you willing to try? It's a comedy, and it's not typically structured, and it's got a very quirky vibe to it. We take a lot of liberties."
Orfeh, Shuler Hensley, Marya Grandy, Linda Hart, Leslie Kritzer
Trailer Park is set in Armadillo Acres Trailer Park, the most "elite" trailer park in Stark, Florida. Its residents include Jeannie, who has been agoraphobic since nearly 20 years ago, when her baby was kidnapped; her husband Norbert, a toll collector; and, Betty, Lin and Pickles, who live in the trailer park and both participate in and narrate the tale. When the story begins, the voluptuous Pippi, on the run from her violent, magic marker-sniffing boyfriend Duke, arrives in Armadillo Acres and rents a trailer. Complications and a large quantity of comedy and music ensue.
Jokes about trailer parks and their residents abound in the show, but Kelso and Nehls stress that they laugh with instead of at their characters. "People come in with a concept of what a trailer park is, what trailer trash is," Kelso adds. "We don't go there. We come from a very real place. We treat these characters with great respect and affection." As a result, according to actor Marya Grandy, the show is "a valentine to trailer parks. The characters are not striving to get out. They are happy with their lives and their community."
The show is the first major collaboration between Kelso and Nehls, who met while performing in The Rocky Horror Show in Europe. "David came up with the germ of the idea. And then he spread the disease to me," Kelso jokes. David had written a number of songs set in a trailer park, inspired by his memories of the kind trailer park residents to whom he'd delivered newspapers as a boy; and he asked Kelso to collaborate with him on a musical in that setting. Kelso had never written a musical before. "I was doing sketch comedy at the time," she says. "I was flattered that he thought I could do it, but I didn't think I could write a musical." Nehls persisted, and Trailer Park is the result.
Though the show is starting its first commercial run, it has been in the works for years (they first presented it around '97 or '98). "People said, 'There are problems. But, there is something there,'" says Nehls. The pair rewrote and revised, moved things around and went through more readings and workshops. By now, they are a seasoned team; and, in fact, during the interview they often finished each other's thoughts and their jokes. In addition, as Kelso puts it, over the course of the process "[w]e've learned a lot. We've got tools in place now that we didn't have then. We're better at pinpointing the problems, and there's great relief in that." Last year, the show was produced at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it received excellent reviews and was an audience favorite. As a result, it made the move to Dodger Stages at 50th Street for at least a six-month Off-Broadway run.
With the assistance of Manhattan Theatre Club's David Caparelliotis, who has worked with the show, Kelso and Nehls have assembled a seasoned and talented cast: Shuler Hensley, Tony Award Winner for Oklahoma; Orfeh, who appeared on Broadway in Saturday Night Fever and Footloose; Kaitlin Hopkins, who was nominated for a Drama Desk award for her work in Batboy; Linda Hart, who has performed with Sid Caesar and Bette Midler (separately) and created the role of Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray; Leslie Kritzer, who also appeared in Hairspray, although after Hart left the show, and who worked with Hopkins in Bat Boy; Wayne Wilcox, who has appeared in theater and also has a role in TV's The Gilmore Girls; and Marya Grandy, an actor, singer and writer who also is the only cast member from the New York Musical Theatre production, and who also collaborated with Nehls in The Water Coolers in 2002.
In preparing for previews and opening night with the ensemble, Nehls and Kelso afforded the actors the opportunity to have input into the show. "You hear about actors and musicians sometimes who aren't so collaborative, and I don't know how anything gets accomplished if they're not collaborative," Nehls says. It's not always easy to let go, Kelso states. As the writers, "you want to control everything ... But, more than anything, you learn about your characters through these people. I learn about them from the designers as well, when I'm sitting there and they're asking me questions about the wigs and the costumes. You start looking at them from a 360 degree view. Everything starts getting fleshed out. The whole thing kind of morphs. It's kind of wild." According to Nehls, "Our casts all of our casts have helped this develop. Because they bring out all these dimensions that are not on the page."
So far, the reception to and buzz surrounding the show has been positive. Kelso and Nehls posit this is partly because Trailer Park is not only "left of center" but has widespread appeal. "There's broad comedy, there's great rock 'n' roll, there's a little bit of disco thrown in, there's blues," Kelso says. In addition, Nehls says, "It has heart, which people don't expect. And, it's funny, funny, funny. Loud, loud, loud. And, then, there are little moments of heart that catch you by surprise, hopefully, and make you feel for these people. By the end, you feel like you've gone on a journey, not just enjoyed a frivolous, frilly evening. When you go to the theater, I think you should be moved on many levels. And, that's what we're trying to accomplish here."
Although Hairspray is a bigger production, Hart states that her current part as Betty is much more demanding. "In Hairspray, I only sang three or four songs. I sing eight songs in Trailer Park, alone or with the other girls. Also, there is only one time that we [Hart, Grandy and Kritzer] are offstage, and then we're only offstage for five pages. In Hairspray, there were times that I would be offstage for fifteen or seventeen minutes. So, for me, ... this is a giant commitment." In fact, the show is demanding for everyone, she says. "There are only seven of us. Each character has to pull his own weight, because all seven of us have to do so much work."
Kritzer agrees that the experience has been crazy and busy, "in a good way." She adds, "It's one of the best things I've ever been a part of. The journey [to opening] has been so interesting." Of those involved in Trailer Park, she states, "You couldn't ask for a better company." Not only are they supportive, but they have good chemistry and react well to one another. Kritzer recalls a preview in which, she confesses, she forgot about part of a pivotal scene. "I jumped to the end of the scene and walked offstage." The rest of the actors quickly compensated for her mistake. "We're all alert," she says, which is necessary, due to the quick pacing of the show. "It's like The Amazing Race."
At first, Grandy wasn't sure they'd have the level of chemistry that Kritzer describes, as things had worked so well in the earlier production. Especially with the three women, who have to work so closely together, it was important to develop a rhythm and be able to work in sync. Quickly, however, her concerns were allayed. "Everyone's been great," she says. "It's a different energy [than at the Festival] but also wonderful." It helps that Betsy Kelso and David Nehls give the cast a lot of freedom to develop their own characters and to develop chemistry.
The family feeling extends to the show's real family, as well. For example, Nehls and Kelso cite their parents as being among the show's biggest fans. Kelso's mother Inez has become a de facto press assistant, keeping track of media coverage via the Internet. And, in honor of the start of rehearsals, Nehls' mother Darlene baked cookies for the cast and crew. "They were good cookies too," Kelso adds. The show also plans to reach out to the community outside its own, Kritzer states. A portion of the proceeds of each full-priced ticket sale through the end of September will be donated to the Red Cross.
As opening night approaches, those involved monitor audience and critical response and hope for the best. In addition, they are enjoying the experience itself. Hart is "thrilled at the reception," she says. "Also, it's nice to know that it is as funny as I thought when I first read it." Kritzer, who grew up in New Jersey as a fan of musical theater, and who wrote letters and sought autographs from her heroes as a child, finds it moving when young fans approach her and tell her how much her shows mean to them. "It's amazing, the impact you can have on a child aspiring to do what you want to do. You have to support the next generation to keep the art form going," she says.
For Grandy, who has traveled with the show for several years, the success of Trailer Park is "a dream come true." She is especially pleased that it is opening just as the Musical Theatre Festival is kicking off again. She hopes that the opening - and, hopefully, the success - of this show will serve as an inspiration to the new musicals currently at the Festival.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical
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