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The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Music and Lyrics by David Nehls, Book by Betsy Kelso
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 4, 2014

Kevin O'Brien, Jessica Tilghman, Paula Stoff Dean, Kay Love, Laura Kyro Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Kevin O’Brien, Jessica Tilghman, Paula Stoff Dean, Kay Love, Laura Kyro
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s Christmas time, and Stray Dog Theatre is taking us back to Armadillo Acres to celebrate the season.  Having performed the original Great American Trailer Park Musical in 2012, Stray Dog is now re-visiting the trailer park for a second helping of countrified humor, and it turns out that there’s more genuine charm in the sequel than in the original.  With a better, more engaging script and some hilarious and heartwarming moments, the excellent cast at SDT brings holiday cheer to brighten the Scroogiest hearts and tickle funny bones with outrageous humor and tuneful songs.

I didn’t see Stray Dog’s production of the first Trailer Park Musical. The production I saw was at Dramatic License earlier this year, and while I liked the cast, I remember having some issues with the show itself.  In terms of the plot and script, the Christmas edition manages to correct a lot of the problems I had with the first installment.  It still veers wildly from the crass to the sentimental, and the characters are still broadly drawn, but there’s a lot more genuine emotion in this edition, and the humor seems more affectionate than mocking toward the characters.  The only characters in common with both shows are the enthusiastic narrators: trailer park manager Betty (Laura Kyro), the now-widowed Linoleum or “Lin” (Kay Love), and young single mother “Pickles” (Jessica Tilghman).  Just like in the first one, these three serve as our “tour guides” to the goings-on at Armadillo Acres, occasionally stepping in to play other roles as the story requires. Among the new additions to the story is Rufus Jeter (Kevin O’Brien), who works several jobs and loves to help decorate the trailer park for Christmas.  There’s also Darlene Seward (Paula Stoff Dean), a Scroogelike trailer park dweller who hates Christmas and lives to antagonize Rufus and the rest of the Christmas-loving residents.  When Darlene gets an electrical shock in the midst of a tirade, she’s struck with a comically convenient case of amnesia that not only makes her forget who she is, but basically changes her whole personality. Suddenly the mean, Christmas-hating Darlene becomes a wide-eyed enthusiast who is eager to join in the decorating, all the while struggling to regain her memories and finding herself strangely attracted to formal rival Rufus.  All of this is unbeknownst to Darlene’s boyfriend Jackie (Gerry Love)–the money-hungry, egotistical owner of a small chain of pancake houses called Stacks, which are described as a “combination of IHOP and Hooters”.  With a few funny subplots and several not-so-subtle nods to A Christmas Carol, the story unfolds with a few surprises and revelations along  with the requisite trailer park humor.

I think this version works better because the plot is more streamlined, and the holiday theme gives it more of a focus.  It’s still not exactly a masterpiece of musical theatre, but it’s a lot of fun, and the cast is obviously having a great time, shining on such upbeat group numbers as “Christmas In My Mobile Home” and the hilariously crass “…It’s Christmas”.  The cast is led by the strong performances of Kyro, Tighlman and Kay Love as the three narrators as well as additional characters, most notably Kyro’s hilarious turn as a tough but kind biker named Hank, who plays a key role in Darlene’s back story.  All three are in great voice and display strong comic timing. Dean, as Darlene, does an excellent job of portraying both the “mean” and “nice” versions of her character, as well as bringing some depth to her identity crisis and bringing real sympathy to her character.  She and O’Brien’s sweet, goofy Rufus have some cute moments together. Gerry Love makes a suitably scheming villain as Jackie, as well.  All six members of the cast work well together, bringing a great deal of energy to the sweet but still somewhat silly plot that involves the aforementioned amnesia as well as a Christmas curse, a much talked-about photo shoot with Mobile Homes and Gardens magazine, and a crazy finale that involves a few supernatural surprises.

The look and atmosphere of the show is achieved with much detail and whimsy by scenic designer Rob Lippert, costume designer Eileen Engel, and lighting designer Tyler Dubenow, with some spirited choreography by Jamie Lynn Eros.  All of the characters are suitably outfitted, and the set fills the stage with an explosion of colors and kitsch.  It’s amazing just how many tacky Christmas decorations have been assembled for this show.  It all adds to the over-the-top outlandishness of the show, which is basically the point of it all.

I found myself genuinely enjoying this new story more than the original, perhaps because while the show is still wild, crazy, and raunchy, this time it has more real sentiment, and although the situations are as implausible and exaggerated as ever, the central plot line is easier and more rewarding to follow.  It’s almost like an R-rated Hallmark Christmas Special at times, and I think that comparison is intended, as this show takes familiar Christmas story tropes and puts its own southern fried spin on them.  It’s a very fun show, with the cast seeming to have at least as much fun as the audience.  It’s a pleasant surprise–a shiny, gaudy, goofy holiday gift from Stray Dog to its audience.

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Muiscal Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Muiscal
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Music and Lyrics by David Nehls
Book by Betsy Kelso
Directed by Alan Knoll
Dramatic License Productions
September 6th, 2014

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Welcome to Armadillo Acres!  In their latest offering at their location in Chesterfield Mall, Dramatic License is hosting this over-the-top tribute to life in a Florida trailer park, complete with all the characters one might expect, and few real surprises. Still, while this show may not be for all tastes, it certainly draws a large, enthusiastic audience.  With a great, highly energetic cast and strong production values, this show manages to entertain despite any shortcomings in the script.

The story takes us to Stark, Florida, where the Armadillo Acres trailer park is populated by a range of colorful, if somewhat stereotypical, characters. There’s a Greek Chorus of sorts, consisting of the park’s owner Betty (Kim Furlow); perky teenager Pickles (Stephanie Benware), who may or may not be pregnant; and the brash Linoleum (Stephanie Merritt), whose convict husband is on Florida’s Death Row.  These three serve as our tour guides throughout the play, directly addressing the audience and occasionally playing a variety of other characters as the scenes require.  The main plot revolves around the troubled marriage of the agoraphobic Jeannie (Jamie Lynn Eros), and her husband Norbert (Jeffrey Pruett), a toll collector who is increasingly frustrated at Jeannie’s inability to leave the trailer (she’s been in there for 20 years).  When feisty stripper Pippi (Leah Stewart) moves into town, a smitten Norbert is torn between his sweet but anxious wife and the available new neighbor. But wait–maybe Pippi isn’t so available after all, as her enraged, glue and marker-sniffing ex-boyfriend Duke (Luke Steingruby) is determined to win her back or else. In the course of the plot, loyalties are tested, secrets are revealed and many, many jokes are told.

I have to admit this is not really my type of show, but in the hands of the excellent cast members who all seem to be having a wonderful time, I often found myself laughing along with the packed audience. There are certainly problems with the script, some of the jokes go just a little too far in their outrageousness, and it’s not always clear whether this parody is affectionate or belittling. The plot is also fairly predictable, and one very big revelation toward the end of the play is telegraphed in the first few minutes.  The music is very energetic, though, with a great little band and the strong voices of the talented cast, and some clever lyrics (such as “make like a nail an press on”).  Most of the music is country-styled, but there is one hilarious foray into disco at the end of Act One that is among the highlights of this production, as well as showing off the great costuming by Lisa Hazelhorst, energetic choreography by Zachary Stefaniak, and Max Parrilla’s wonderful lighting effects.  There’s also a very colorful, atmospheric set designed by Kyra Bishop that enhances the overall energy of the production.

The real highlight of this show is its wonderful cast.  Most of the characters here are very broadly portrayed and don’t seem to have much depth, although the performers seem to be having a lot of fun, and manage to bring some substance when there isn’t much in the script.  Furlow, Benware and Merritt make excellent guides through the proceedings, with lots of charm and energy, and there’s also a fun comic performance by Steingruby as the deranged and determined Duke.  Pruett has a difficult role as the vacillating Norbert, although he manages to find some sympathy for the character, and he has good chemistry with his two rival leading ladies.  The real standouts here, though, are Eros as the anxious but earnest Jeannie, and Leah Stewart as the new neighbor, Pippi. Eros gives a thoroughly winning performance, displaying a lot of guts and a strong voice, making the audience cheer her on in her efforts to overcome her agoraphobia and sympathize with her as she deals with the challenges to her marriage. While Jeannie is definitely the character with the most depth in this show, Stewart manages to find a lot of substance to her role as the conflicted “other woman”, and she also has a great big voice that she shows off to great effect throughout the show. There’s also a very strong finale in which all of the cast members get to show off their voices as all of the plot’s loose ends are tied up in various hilariously improbable ways.

Ultimately, a show like this is about entertainment. Even though it does have its issues plot and script-wise, it certainly does succeed in being entertaining. Some people will like it more than others, but I’d be surprised if anyone would be able to see this show and not laugh at least a little. Thanks to the great cast that Dramatic License and director Alan Knoll have assembled, this show manages to succeed in eliciting an uproarious response from its audience.

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

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