Review: ‘The Great American Trailer Park Musical’ at Ritz Theatre Company

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The Great American Trailer Park Musical is a terrific title for a show. When you hear it, you know exactly where it takes place – and you can probably guess what the story and the characters are going to be like.

Julia King, Sarah Duvall Pearson, Lauren Parsons, and Tracey Gaffney. Photo by Chris Miller.
Julia King, Sarah Duvall Pearson, Lauren Parsons, and Tracey Gaffney. Photo by Chris Miller.

And you’re probably right. It’s a simple show about simple people. It takes all the clichés you’ve ever heard about people who live in trailer parks and compiles them into one easygoing musical. But while The Great American Trailer Park Musical may not be a sophisticated or groundbreaking show, it does possess an offbeat, Southern style of charm. And Ritz Theatre Company’s new production benefits from some excellent musical and comical performances.

In the show’s opening song, the denizens of Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in blue collar Starke, Florida, proclaim that they’re on “This Side of the Tracks,” as opposed to the wrong (or right) side of the tracks. But while the characters say they’re not trailer trash, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise: one character is a stripper, another has a husband on death row, while a third loves running down animals on the road (as he sings a song called “Road Kill”).

Julia King, Sarah Duvall Pearson, and Lauren Parsons. Photo by Chris Miller.
Julia King, Sarah Duvall Pearson, and Lauren Parsons. Photo by Chris Miller.

The plot deals with agoraphobic Jeannie, who hasn’t left her trailer in decades after suffering a tragedy (a serious one that’s dealt with far too lightly). When sultry stripper Pippi moves into the trailer park, she embarks on an affair with Jeannie’s meek husband Norbert. Soon Pippi’s violent, no-good ex-boyfriend Duke finds out about the affair, and he sets off from Oklahoma City to Florida with revenge on his mind. All of these plot developments are observed by a Greek chorus of trailer park residents who sing songs commenting on the action.

Betsy Kelso’s book takes aim at some shopworn comic targets, and while the storyline isn’t innovative or involving, it sets the mood well and provides some good laugh lines.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical first played Off-Broadway in 2004, and the show’s time frame has not been updated. This can be disorienting at first, as a flashback scene set “twenty years ago” turns out to take place thirty years ago instead. Some of the decade-old cultural references – like a drug joke about Whitney Houston – could stand to be cut or revised.

David Nehls wrote the songs, most of which adopt a laid-back pop style. He’s provided a few ballads (“Owner of My Heart” and “But He’s Mine”) with lovely melodies. There’s also a fun disco-styled number (“Storm’s A-Brewin’”), and the gorgeous gospel-styled finale ends the show on an upbeat note. Unfortunately, many of the lyrics are generic and don’t reveal much about the characters.

Julia King, Frankie Rowles, and Lauren Parsons. Photo by Chris Miller.
Julia King, Frankie Rowles, and Lauren Parsons. Photo by Chris Miller.

Under Matt Reher’s direction, the Ritz’s spirited cast makes the most of every comic opportunity. The standout is Frankie Rowles, who plays Duke with a swagger and a squint that are simultaneously menacing and hilarious. And the cast is filled with powerful singers, including Jennie Knackstedt as Pippi, Tracey Gaffney as Jeannie, Sarah Duvall Pearson as landlady Betty, Julia King as sharp-tongued Lin, and Lauren Parsons as dimwitted Pickles. The girl-group style harmonies on several numbers by Gaffney, Pearson and King are especially tasty (Robert Stoop provides the musical and vocal direction). And Ryan Ruggles rounds out the cast as Norbert, earning laughs with a bewildered expression as if he’s wondering why he’s being pursued by two women.

The set design by W. Kris Clayton fills the stage with some convincing-looking trailers. And Michael Kelly’s costume design is consistently droll, especially the sequins and sparkles he provides for the act one disco finale.

Running Time: Two hours, including intermission.

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The Great American Trailer Park Musical plays through May 29, 2016 at the Ritz Theatre Company – 915 White Horse Pike, in Haddon Township, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (856) 858-5230, or purchase them online.