The Great American Trailer Park Musical, book by Betsy Kelso, music and lyrics by David Nehls. Directed by Bert Bernardi.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jerielle Morwitz, Caitlin Lester-Sams, Jordan Wolfe, Victoria Broadhurst; photo: provided
"It doesn’t take a genius..."
In 2005 "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" opened in New York for a 121 performance off-Broadway run. Such a limited exposure usually limits the future of a show, but not this one. As its title implies, this show is about people who live outside the ordinary lives. So it is with this show. It spawned other productions, tours, a British production. One of its original players has gone on to a fine career in more mainstream musicals, even taking on the classic role of Miss Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls" at Barrington Stage last season: Leslie Kritzer. Now it can be seen on a local stage at the Theater Barn in new Lebanon.
This production showcases some of the finest vocal and acting talents the region has seen in a long while. If pluck describes the characters and even the show itself, the same word defines the performances presented now under the direction of Bert Bernardi who seems to truly get this show. His choices are superb, both in casting and in staging. Broad gestures, vulgar language, sexual innuendo and a gun or seven have their moments here and Bernardi has them under perfect control. For an hour and fifty minutes the show moves us through the lives of Norbert and Jeannie Garstenny whose baby was stolen in infancy causing Jeannie to develop agoraphobia and Norbert to finally take up with another woman, a stripper named Pippa (almost rhymes, can if you drop the r in stripper).
The authors of this show have taken ideas from bigger hit shows and utilized them well here. The Greek Chorus concept of a trio of rock singers in "Little Shop of Horrors" provides a similar trio of country gals who sing, narrate, fill in the blanks and play a dozen or so other characters including three men in a strip club. The stolen baby and its unsuspecting parents, so much a part of this company’s next show (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) rears its ugly head here as well. There’s a minor tribute to "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," and another one to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Pipe Dream" where people live in the oddest contraptions including trailers and unused industrial water pipes.
What this show adds to the mix is a hilarious combination of elements that include a bambi-like epigram to "road kill," an homage to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s first act finale of "Mahagonny," as a typhoon descends on Florida with its psychological reference to a troubled love affair, a tribute to television’s new unhappy trend toward reality shows, the Tevya dream sequence in "Fiddler on the Roof" and so much more. When you scramble all of this together and heat it over the Florida panhandle, you end up with this very funny, hard-to-resist little musical.
Leading the trio of trailer park fillies is Jerielle Morwitz, always a welcome attraction at the Barn. She plays Betty, the woman who owns the park and is liable to gossip whether she wants to or not. Her cronies are played by the raven-haired Caitlin Lester-Sams as Lin (the spelling means something, by the way) and Victoria Broadhurst as Pickles whose baby is born during Act Two to the surprise of everyone including Pickles. These three make their trios into a remarkable and lovely treat. All three are beautiful and all three are talented and with Morwitz holding center stage much of the time their every entrance is welcome. They also get to wear the best wigs in the show.
Pippi is gorgeously sung and played by Mary Kate Morrissey. Her strip number is a bit odd and not as well played as the rest of her role, but her singing is divine. When she sings "But He’s Mine" it is as though Nashville opened a vault and she stepped out relaxed, ready and rejoicing. Jordan Wolfe as her swain, who follows her by car from Oklahoma to Florida acquiring road kill as he goes, is less effective but is nice to look at and even fine to hear. He just isn’t her equal and if Morrissey’s Pippa throws his Duke over that would be a fine thing for everyone involved.
Norbert and Jeannie are played by Shaun Rice and Katie Clark. Imagine Stubby Kaye (healthily overweight and so right for his roles in "Guys and Dolls" and "Li’l Abner" on Broadway that he repeated them on film) with a handsome face and a beautiful singing voice and you’ve got Rice’s Norbert. He is the perfect match for both the women in his life, his vocal tones blending beautifully with theirs. Clark as the highly fearful Jeannie is funny and touching at the same time and also a musical revelation bringing her songs, such as "Panic" and "Flushed Down the Pipes" to both poignant and vivid life. Her love duet with Rice, "Owner of My Heart" was a fine example of how musical theater can touch the heart and entertain and cement character all at the same time.
The physical production on the small stage of the Theater Barn was bit of a miracle. Two trailers sit on the stage which miraculously, using the imagination of the audience, transforms convincingly into the stage and backstage area of a strip club. Abe Phelps wins the design awards for this one. Alyssa Couturier has created costumes that manage to define characters with simplicity and ease, which is rarely a simple thing to do. Allen E. Phelps’ lighting design work on this show is exemplary. Interiors are warm and glowing, while exteriors reflect time of day and weather conditions. He couldn’t have made better choices for this show.
It is Bert Bernardi who deserves the ultimate congratulations, though, for this show. A silly piece of fluff he has made it work with the strength and conviction of a "My Fair Lady" or a "Most Happy Fella." He has brought out the realities and held them forward in every scene so that these folks escape the world of caricature and hold fast to the real world of the musical. We, the audience, may not associate with these folks in our actual lives, but we come away sure that we’ve seen them, met them, imitated them for laughs and ignored them socially. The director has given his actors a sense of reality for their work and they adhere to it brilliantly. Also the choreography, uncredited, must be accorded some notice and probably it is Bernardi’s work as well. It’s just right!
If you like fluff with some bad language that is in keeping with the characters, and if you enjoy a musical with exotic characters (not quite "The King and I" but certainly as unusual) this is just up your alley, turn to the right and enter the trailer park. But if they lose electricity, move to a motel - they do and you can continue the show right there I’m sure, making it the perfect choice once again.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical plays through August 19 at the Theater Barn located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or find them on line at www.theaterbarn.com.