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SpeakEasy’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical; Zeitgeist’s Farragut North
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  May 4, 2010

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THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK: Leigh Barrett, Kerry A. Dowling, and Mary Callanan give trailer trash a good name.

White-trash collection has seldom been as hilarious as it is in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which makes its Brahmin-area debut courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the BCA’s Roberts Studio Theatre through May 30). What’s more, there are gems amid the trash — nuggets of spirit and heart that sparkle through the blithely unsavory doings at Armadillo Acres, “North Florida’s most exclusive manufactured-housing community.”

First brought to light at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, Armadillo Acres is a cartoon assemblage of aluminum domiciles overseen by a gossipy Greek chorus comprising park manager Betty, who buried her pan-whacked husband in the back yard “by hand,” Lin (short for linoleum, since she was born on the kitchen floor), whose spouse is on Death Row, and Pickles, an adorably slow-on-the-uptake 17-year-old given to hysterical pregnancy. What this trio have to gossip about, often in three-part harmony, is a domestic drama involving agoraphobic Jeanne, who hasn’t left her trailer since her baby was kidnapped 20 years ago, her frustrated toll-collector husband, Norbert, and recently arrived exotic dancer Pippi, who’s on the lam from a psychotic boyfriend.

Okay, the plot is torn from the National Enquirer, and the music by David Nehls is a pastiche of rock salted with country twang, peppered with gospel and blues, and complicated by its division into duets, trios, and quartets. But the LOL book by Betsy Kelso and Nehls’s equally funny lyrics conspire to turn lowest common denominator into pretty high entertainment — an amalgam of Killer Joe and The Beverly Hillbillies that a tremendous SpeakEasy cast, its plastic-flamingo-overseen doings humanely orchestrated by artistic director Paul Daigneault, puts across loud and clear.

The quirky little musical acknowledges its audience from the get-go, with Betty, Lin, and Pickles greeting us as unintentional “company” — probably the result of a wrong turn off Highway 301. In addition to narrating the as-the-trailer-turns story, this indefatigable threesome play minor roles, from the “men” stuffing dollars into Pippi’s boy shorts as she communes with her pole on “The Buck Stops Here” to the Fates ominously ushering in a crisis on “Storm’s A-Brewing.” For “Road Kill,” a jumpy number that finds unstable ex-beau Duke pursuing Pippi all the way from Oklahoma City, “The Girls” even get to play fauna splattered on the magic-marker-sniffing avenger’s bumper.

Composer/lyricist Nehls has said that the germ of The Great American Trailer Park Musical was his childhood newspaper route, which included a trailer park whose denizens struck him as nicer and more colorful than his other customers. And it is that empathy that is the show’s secret weapon. Don’t get me wrong: Nehls and Kelso leave no lower-class cliché unturned. Yet they give us characters that, however brazen their embrace of things tacky, are proud, genuine, and far from oppressed. And the big-voiced SpeakEasy cast is terrific at nailing every jibe and joke — whether spoken or sung, Andrews Sisters–ized or augmented by 1960s dance moves — while playing it all absolutely straight. I wasn’t sure why, given the caliber of the singers in such an intimate space as the Roberts Studio, there’s so much bleating. But it’s clearly a conscious choice.

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