Cougars and mullets and strippers, oh my!
This ain't Kansas; this is The Great American Trailer Park Musical, where instead of the Emerald City, you'll find the Armadillo Acres trailer park, whose denizens proudly view their "white trash" lives through rose-colored glasses.
After an overture of songs from shifting radio stations that suggest the variety of Southern-fried musical styles to come, we're introduced to Armadillo Acres' resident Greek chorus of trailer-parkettes: Betty (Jacinda Rose Swinehart), the charismatic manager of the park; Lin (Amy Erbe), a woman whose needs aren't being met by her husband (he's been on death row for eight years); and Pickles (Ellie Jepperson), who isn't too bright but seems to be enjoying her hysterical pregnancy.
The good ladies aren't here to talk about themselves. They're here to dish the trailer park's dirt: the sordid tale of a tollbooth worker and his agoraphobic wife, his stripper girlfriend and the stripper's psycho ex-boyfriend. If you're starting to picture trashy daytime-TV talk shows, you're on the right track (and ready for the Act I dream sequence).
Staged in Tucson by Arizona Onstage Productions—a company that deliciously examined small-town Texas life in The Bible Belt and has put on musicals from Sunday in the Park With George to Elegies—The Great American Trailer Park Musical debuted off-Broadway in New York in 2005. It's a bad musical, but it's trying to be a bad musical, so it actually succeeds.
The outrageous plot takes as many hairpin turns as a funhouse ride, occasionally threatening to plow headlong into an actual dramatic moment before spinning back into slapstick anarchy. This is a Saturday-morning cartoon for adults, where all you can count on are plenty of laughs and a happy ending.
The script and score, by Betsy Kelso and David Nehls, could have been written for a public-access television show. The song "Flushed Down the Pipes," for example, demonstrates the authors' skewed sense of humor. The agoraphobic housewife, Jeannie, spends all of her time watching TV and can only talk about her failing marriage in terms of commercial jingles. She invokes the help of Mr. Clean, but even scrubbing bubbles can't clean up this mess. What's being said is very funny, and the parkette trio dancing the song's toilet-brush choreography makes it even funnier. But the song itself is flat and pedestrian. Is that part of the joke? It's hard to be sure. Fortunately, comedy trumps craft in this case, and there are laughs aplenty.
The production team takes the Waiting for Guffman aesthetic and runs with it, starting with Sheldon Metz's evocative set. The stage is trimmed with Astroturf, plastic lawn ornaments, curtains of drying laundry and a rickety stripper pole. The attention to detail in the rotating mobile-home unit that sits center stage reveals just how much care has been taken to create a colorful dump.
The trailer-ific campiness is carried into the thrift-store stylings of Shana Nunez's costumes and Eric Marshall Taylor's wigs and hair, which range from bouffant to mullet. The two designers' work comes together in a magical moment during a disco number when the cast appears in beach-ball-size Afros and '70s-chic dance clothes.
But the most colorful things onstage are the performances by the uniformly strong ensemble of actors, who dance, swagger and brawl under the direction of Debbie Runge.
Swinehart, as Betty the park manager, is the de facto star among equals, a ringmaster for all the other adult children who inhabit the trailer park. She nimbly steps into her character's big-haired persona, singing, dancing and swearing a blue streak with complete abandon.
As her sidekicks, Lin and Pickles, Erbe and Jepperson show off their substantial comic skills. Together with Betty, they sing a running commentary on all of the scandalous goings-on, and step in to play multiple minor roles, from horny strip-club customers to a speeding car.
As Jeannie, who hasn't left her trailer in 20 years, Charity LaPonsie has a strong, clear singing voice, but at the performance I attended, she had some difficulty with intonation. LaPonsie's brilliance becomes clear, however, during a flashback, when she transforms herself into a younger, happier Jeannie simply through her language and physicality.
Jay C. Cotner manages to make her husband, Norbert, likable, even though he's cheating on his wife shortly before their 20th wedding anniversary. His Norbert is an earnest, good-hearted dope who just can't understand how his girlfriend could have complicated things so much with his wife.
Chezale Rodriguez has one of the strongest singing voices in the show. As Pipi, the new stripper in town, she just wants a man to call her own (even if he's already married). Her silky voice and sexy dancing bring heat to a show that, for all its talk of promiscuity, is about as sexual as a Marx Brothers movie.
Nicholas Gallardo turns up late as Pipi's crazy ex-boyfriend, Duke. Gallardo not only has a great voice; his character is so off-the-wall that he makes the others look sane by comparison.
Sadly, the show's one real disappointment is also its major innovation: Arizona Onstage is billing the play as "the world's first scratch-'n'-sniff musical. Each program contains a card with scratch-and-sniff spots cued up to moments in the plot, with scents like suntan lotion and Pine-Sol. It's a brilliant idea that fails to get integrated; maybe something along the lines of a bikini-clad bimbo crossing the stage with a numbered card for each new smell might have worked.
Even so, there's nothing quite like a trip over the rainbow to the wrong side of the tracks. Just click your heels together and say, "There's no place like trailer home ..."