Early in The Great American Trailer Park Musical at Actor's Express, Atlanta musical-theater luminary Libby Whittemore scrutinizes her audience. As Betty, manager of the Armadillo Acres "manufactured housing community" of Starke, Fla., she stands beside the folding chairs and pink flamingo to wryly declare that this might be some people's first time in a trailer park.
From watching the musical, you have to wonder if she's including composer/lyricist David Nehls and book writer Betsy Kelso. Now, for all I know they both grew up barefoot in double-wides, but you couldn't tell from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which relies on familiar, tuckered-out gags about redneck culture – such as the description of mullet haircuts as "business up front, party out back." The dusty material makes you feel bad for the appealing actors, just like you might sympathize with folks who actually reside in mobile homes.
Until recently, Whittemore owned and performed at Libby's Cabaret in Buckhead, and as Betty she certainly owns the stage at Actor's Express. From the minute she belts out the introductory number "This Side of the Tracks," Betty carries herself with a laid-back but commanding blend of Southern hospitality and salty diva-tude. Betty takes the stage with two sidekicks/backup singers, Lin (Christy Baggett), whose husband is on death row, and Pickles (Sharon Zoe Litzky), who's forever in a state of hysterical pregnancy. Baggett and Litzky prove to be winning comic actresses, but disappointingly, the three don't really participate in the action as much as stand on the margins, like a cussin' Greek chorus.
Instead, Trailer Park Musical emphasizes the adulterous shenanigans involving toll-booth collector Norbert (Dolph Amick), his agoraphobic wife, Jeannie (Wendy Melkonian) and "exotic dancer" Pippi (Claci Miller), who blows into town on the run from a psycho boyfriend (Jeremy Aggers) who sniffs Magic Markers. Miller proves to be an impressive crooner and dancer even when she's not strip-teasing during "The Buck Stops Here."
The creators seem interested in the show mostly as a means of aiming at some huge, easy targets. A dream-scene number spoofs "Sally Jesse Raphael"-type TV shows, and Act 1 ends with a disco tune for no reason other than the fact that campy musicals must always have disco tunes. (Granted, it's also a good showcase for Jamie Bullins' clever costumes.) A 1980s flashback is wasted, since the accompanying song, rather than parodying the hair metal or New Wave of the period, sounds more like Grease-style doo-wop. The lyrics seemed moderately more memorable than the melodies, although on opening night, the words proved unintelligible during some tunes.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical's snobby attitude to "white trash" isn't necessarily the show's problem. Like it or not, making fun of the poor and underprivileged is a cornerstone of comedy at least as far back as Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals." Of primary importance are the quality of the jokes and the generosity of spirit. The movie Raising Arizona and the NBC sitcom "My Name Is Earl" have the same kinds of settings, but strike a balance between wickedly inventive gags and a fresh friendliness toward the characters.
Trailer Park merely treats its characters like clowns, from the revelation that "Lin" is short for "Linoleum" to the references to use of plungers as dance props in the "Flushed Down the Drain" tune. Some jokes manage to surprise, such as the way the song "Panic" name-checks numerous Lifetime TV movies, but most of the material would've sounded dated during the Clinton administration. Plus, the idea that we'll sympathize with such silly people during the "serious" ballads is flatly ridiculous.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical was the last show programmed by former artistic director Jasson Minadakis, who must have been particularly hungry for a hit. Actor's Express normally deserves its reputation as Atlanta's most bold and exciting playhouse, so it's a surprise to see it stage, in effect, a raunchy version of Pump Boys and Dinettes. I'm about as shocked as a satellite dish in an electrical storm.
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