One of the great things about community theater is that you get to see just about every configuration of human ambition imaginable paraded forth for your entertainment. Freed from the burden of profit that plagues professional theater and interested only in making enough to keep the lights on, local troupes can stage just about anything that challenges them to work around the limitations of space and budget, and the results are often amazing. Take the Athens Community Theatre, home of the Town & Gown Players. Its stage is relatively tiny compared to others around town and if anyone had suggested to me that Cabaret, The Lion in Winter, or The Rocky Horror Show could be staged in that limited real estate, I’d have laughed. And yet they did, and very well.The downside of pleasant surprises, however, is that after awhile they stop being surprises and just become givens, and if one’s job is to write about theater (or any other single topic), one starts looking for new angles to break the monotony. I’ll admit that sometimes I hope for a show I can pan, just to break things up.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical, by Betsy Kelso and David Nehls, is a show I could pan easily. It’s meant to be a piece of over-the-top cartoonish fluff about the lives and obsessions of white trash, but while there’s a lot of cleverness and good songs to be found here, there’s only so many ways one can rephrase the same joke before it’s mined out, and that happens about two-thirds into the first act.
Imagine my surprise during Town & Gown’s current production when, as a truly surreal musical number led to intermission, I found myself enjoying the play. As I said, there are many reasons not to, and yet I was startled by the fact that I didn’t hate it. And there is the surprise. While the experience of most community theater productions is of a cast and crew laboring hard to live up to the material, this is one of the rare instances where the players manage to transcend it. This Trailer Park Musical is executed in lively and enjoyable fashion and is worth checking out.
Set in Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in the fictional town of Stark, Florida, located squarely in the urethra of America’s wang, the play follows a tawdry love triangle between middle-aged toll collector Norbert (Don Smith), his agoraphobic wife Jeannie (Amy Miller), who has not set foot outside their trailer in 20 years, and Pippi (Melissa Baxter), an Oklahoma stripper on the run from her psychotic, magic-marker-huffing boyfriend Duke (Aaron Newman). Observing the action and providing commentary is a redneck Greek chorus: Betty (Greer Caldwell), who took over the park from her suspiciously late husband; Lin (Asia Meana), short for Linoleum, whose husband is on Death Row; and Pickles (Mandy Riley), who regularly suffers from hysterical pregnancy. The chorus also serves as all the minor characters, so they’re kept hopping throughout the play.
As Norbert and Jeannie’s 20th anniversary approaches, Norbert is at the end of his rope. When he married his high-school sweetheart back in his bemulleted days, their happiness seemed assured, until an abductor snatched their baby and drove the devastated Jeannie indoors and isolated from the cruel world. Distraught to distraction, Norbert meets up with Pippi, who has moved into the next trailer over and is dancing at the local strip joint, and the two of them hook up. As Jeannie struggles to overcome her agoraphobia in time for their anniversary, Norbert is drifting further and further away from her, but in a trailer park nothing can stay a secret for long…
The musical numbers, and there are a lot of them, are engaging and incorporate a wide variety of genres, often surprisingly—I mentioned the last number in Act One, which is too weird and wonderful to spoil—but often tend to veer off into too much cleverness for their own good. The execution, on the other hand, is fantastic. Director Jonathan Sparks is very good at choosing strong and facile voices for his shows and conducting them, and the musical numbers, especially those of the chorus, are very well done.
Smith and Miller are veterans, and they deliver solid performances here. The girls in the chorus are good in their primary and secondary roles, with props to Riley every time she comes out wearing a hat shaped like flan (you’ll see). Newman does his best with his sorely underwritten character. The real surprise here, however, is Baxter, making her debut in this show. She has a key part, key songs and key choreography, and she pulls all of it off splendidly. Amy Miller is a formidable singer, but during a number late in the show Baxter trades licks with her and holds her own, displaying some seriously impressive diva chops.
The set design is simple but functional, taking advantage of every inch of available stage not occupied by Sparks’ solid house band, who necessarily perform onstage. Particularly nifty is a gimmick that allows us access to the interior of Norbert and Jeannie’s trailer.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical is not a great play by any means, but Town & Gown’s production is a great production, and the end result is quite entertaining and a very pleasant surprise.
The play continues at the Athens Community Theatre behind the Taylor-Grady House Thursday-Saturday, June 20-22, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 23, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors, $10 for students on Thursday, and may be purchased at www.townandgownplayers.org or by calling 706-208-8696.
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