Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Theater Review: The Great American Trailer Park Musical
There are many elements within this production to enjoy -- which I did -- but having seen the original version, there were elements and some acting styles that I felt the production here was missing.
Let me set the image for you:
It is November 2005 and outside the Dodgers Stages Theater in New York City it is one of those frigid cold nights. There is a constant mist that acts like a temperamental faucet, where one second it is a light mist, and then it becomes a raging downpour. The winds are furious and blistering cold. You know those New York winds that arise from the Hudson. They slap you in the face, hitting you like razor blades that were frozen in rocks of ice that have sharp, piercing edges.
But inside the theater, the original Off-Broadway cast is dressed like it is a typical humid, hot, summer Southern day, where your clothes stick to you like a second skin. I am sitting there holding my sides from laughing so hard at this new musical with its unique title, The Great American Trailer Park Musical (GATPM).
At intermission I stated to my friend, "Whoever does this production back home (Dallas) will have a monster hit on their hands." "Why?" my friend replied. "Because this show would so connect with the metroplex audiences." And as fate would have it, boy was I right.
Last season, Watertower Theater presented the regional premiere of GATPM at their annual Out of the Loop Festival where it became a big seller for them. It was such a hit that they brought it back (with its original cast intact) to open their current season. Since opening in early October, they have extended it twice due to the overwhelming demand for tickets. Do I know the DFW audience or what?
The story of this Southern fried musical is set at the Armadillo Acres trailer park in Starke, Florida. We are welcomed by three women whose make up resembled as though a color blind monkey applied it to their faces…in several layers. The ladies serve as the Greek Chorus who share with the audience all the gossip and goings-on at the trailer park.
Under the reliable & very proficient hands of James Paul Lemons, the direction is crisp with the pace set at a perfect speed. Hans Patrick Grim's musical direction would make the creators of this musical grin from ear to ear. The band sounds toe-tappingly terrific and the tempos are right on the money. To help Lemons create the world of Armadillo Acres, his designers do a fine job.
However, I must admit I prefer the original set. In New York you immediately saw on stage the backs of three trailer homes center stage, with other trailers on stage right and left. When the show started, the blinds in the middle trailer home were pulled up, which revealed the show's orchestra all crammed in the living room & kitchen. It was a hilarious visual that set the tone for the night. The stage left trailer pulled out to reveal the Litter Box strip club, while the stage right trailer opened up to show Jennie's living room. Behind the trailers were towering electrical poles with drooping lines, and an assortment of satellite dishes and antennas.
Nonetheless, the set for the WTT is still a visual delight. On John Hobbie's set are two large trailers, where one contains a turning unit that reveals the strip club, while the other pulls out to reveal Jennie's living room. Both trailers are designed impeccably to really look like those trailers we've all seen out in Middle America. Both trailer homes and the set itself is covered in hysterical, god awful trailer park bric-a-brac, photographs, paintings, etc. These wild and funny props were designed by Lemons and Heidi Shen. Take a look at Jennie's wall -- the photographs of those mullets are hilarious!
David Natinsky's lighting design is solid, with some fun specials, such as the gaudy splash of colors for the musical number set in the stripper club. He also has put a special gobo that floods the stage with shadows of leaves and trees.
You can tell Costumer Designer Michael A. Robinson had great fun in designing the costumes for the residents of Armadillo Acres. The costumes for the disco number that close Act One were my favorite. In various hues of blue and silver, covered in sequins and shimmering stars, the costumes and wigs looked like an amalgamation of SOLID GOLD and the DONNY & MARIE SHOW.
There were some physical elements that I must confess I did miss from the original version. For example the wacky & wild special effects used for the storm sequence. In the original the electrical poles came crashing down and antennas fell off the trailer's roofs. This aided a lot in setting up several key jokes and character arc for Lin's "emotional" breakdown at the beginning of the second act. I also missed the hilarious headpiece and costume that Pickles wore as "Tina" at the Flan Shoppe. Finally the contraption that was created to symbolize Duke's car was a great visual joke. It was made of metal bars and a steering column & wheel, all attached to his waist.
Don't misunderstand me here, the WTT's design elements were all solid, I just somehow remember those original design elements so vividly because they aided so much in making me laugh constantly and loudly that night in New York.
The performances from this talented cast range from quite good to one thespian that was actually much funnier than the original New York cast member who created that role.
Megan Elizabeth Kelly does a very good job as "Pickles", the pregnant teen, but I miss the complete transformation from "Tina" to "Pickles" that was in the original version. Leslie Kritzer literally chewed the scenery as both characters, but Ms. Kelly somehow doesn't create two complete different women. Also Ms. Krtizer used the pregnancy for several physical stage bits that had the audience rolling on the floor. Finally, Kritzer really ante upped the "air headed blonde" who was clueless and dumb as a pile of rocks. Kelly does play into that, but seems to hit and miss with those elements within her characterization. Regardless, Ms. Kelly does achieve laughs throughout her performance.
As "Norbert", Jim Johnson does have the height and low bass voice that indeed does resemble his original counterpart. The role was originated by Shuler Hensley, who currently is portraying the creature in Mel Brooks' Frankenstein. Johnson earlier this season gave a hysterical performance in Die Mommie Die!, and here he is indeed entertaining. What is missing though is the variations and levels of comic conflict that the role has.
Hensley found thunderous laughs within this conflict, going from horny doofus at a strip club to a man who still does love his wife very much. These combating emotions helped in creating the duet "Owner of my Heart" into a sincere, heart tugging song that helped the audience really feel for Norbert. I miss that from Johnson's portrayal here. However, Johnson's did achieve guffawing laughs from the audience during the company number "Storm's A-Brewin". That image of him in the velvet Elvis costume and dancing like a mammoth Robot with disco fever was hilarious!
Stacy Oristano portrays "Pippi", a stripper who has a streak of bad luck with men. But isn't that one of the requirements in becoming a stripper? In New York, the role was originated by one of my personal favorite grand divas of stage, the phenomenal Orfeh. You can currently catch her stealing scenes in Legally Blonde on Broadway. Ms. Oristano does have a beautiful soprano voice that does do great justice to her assigned solos. But alas I missed the big, booming, electrifying voice of Orfeh's, particularly in the powerful Finale. While Oristano does sing wonderfully, both the band and the rest of the company overpowered her vocal riffing in the finale. Also missing was the hilarious acrobatics on the stripper pole that Pippi does in her first number, "The Buck stops here". Here the pole became a complete second character and used to brilliant comedic results. Nonetheless, Oristano is quite funny and provides a crowd pleasing performance.
Rounding out the cast are the always reliable Patty Breckenridge and Cara Statham Serber. Both grand divas of the metroplex stage once again deliver the entertaining performances that we've come to expect from them.
This leaves what I personally consider the best performances with in the cast: Sara Shelby-Martin as "Betty" and Andy Baldwin as "Duke".
Ms. Martin had pact down the exact tone and subtext that the role required and demanded. She had just the right amount of Southern drawl that did not sound too outlandish or forced, instead it came out naturally. Using her face like a blank canvas, her many facial reactions to what was happening on stage were priceless. Kudos as well to Martin for using her heaving bosom as props that resulted in some great laughs.
With a sassy walk and a mountain of blonde wig, Martin gave "Betty" a scene-stealing characterization. One of her best comedic scenes was that of her becoming Sally Jessy Raphael in the company number, "The Great American TV Show." But it is vocally where Martin truly shines. A booming soprano voice that can transform from classical musical theater to pop to country to rock with a simple click. She does some hilarious Fantasia vocal riffs in one number and in a heartbeat transforms vocally into classic Loretta Lynn. Ms. Martin delivers a smashing performance in this production.
Finally there is Andy Baldwin as "Duke", a trailer trash redneck who has an addiction to sniffing magic markers and cooking spray. Using his body like a separate comedy prop, the actor shakes, thrusts, wobbles and flares his head, arms, and legs like they were ready to pop off and smack an audience member in the face, knocking them out cold. With the faux pas Mohawk and Monty Python influenced walk; Baldwin resembled a peacock that has severe bowel problems as well as an addiction to crack So this is what someone looks like after sniffing endless magic markers! Baldwin achieved such rowdy, ear shattering laughs with each exit, that practically every exit he made was met with great applause from the audience. The actor also has a very quick wit. When a magic marker accidentally rolled into the audience, Baldwin not only recovered it, but it did it with two side splitting ad-libs in the process.
Baldwin's one major solo "Road kill" is a knock out comedic winner. I also found the actor's choice of covering his face with magic markers as a comic stroke of genius. "Duke" was originated by Wayne Wilcox, who was so funny in the New York version. But Baldwin gives such a completely different & unique performance that the end result is this: Baldwin was actually much, much funnier that Wilcox. Baldwin truly outshined his New York counterpart in this role.
Within in the many festive musical numbers of the night, the best from the evening include: "The Great American TV Show"; "Roadkill"; "That's Why I Love My Man"; "Storm's A-Brewin"; and the finale.
However the element that did bother me the most was this: The humor and Southern redneck dialects were really loud and over the top in this version. Thus at times the characters became caricatures, and not just normal Southern folk. That's what made the New York production have an equal level of laughs and heart. You really felt the dramatic situations within that entire wacky, wild, over the top comedy. It helped anchor the audience's appreciation for the characters on stage. Plus, it greatly assisted in developing the subtext for these citizens of Armadillo Acres.
Examples of this include the relationship between Jeannie & Norbert, and Pippi's heartache. When "Pippi" sang the lyric "Like my nails…I press on" you were laughing so hard, but also because of the heartache attached to the subtext, you felt your eyes sting a little from the tear in your eye. The WTT production has heightened the comedy so high that sadly these over the top hysterics and dialects from some of the performances causes the musical to become a little too caricature and broad.
I end this review with the following: I honestly think I am one of the very few people in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex who saw the original New York production. Thus, everyone who has already seen WTT's version has RAVED on this production, and rightfully so. Judging by the audience's ear shattering laughs and applause, this production delivers big time. There are many elements within this production to enjoy -- which I did -- but having seen the original version, there were elements and some acting styles that I felt the production here was missing as well.
But who cares? WTT's version has become a juggernaut hit for their season opener! I sincerely think that if you have never seen this production before, you are in for one hysterical evening of musical theater. Trust me, you will LOVE Watertower's mounting of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Audiences have been going back more than once, which explains why they've extended twice now. Shoot, I bet if WTT anchors this show with a permanent theater space it could run for several years. That's how much of a huge success this production has become for them. So get your tix NOW……that is if you can!
Who knows, maybe you can get a ride from Duke…that is if you don't mind watching him run over innocent wildlife on the way to theater. That and that you arrive at the theater with your face resembling a map of the Los Angles freeway with all those magic marker stains.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical runs through November 2, 2007. Showtimes are Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online or by calling the WTT Box Office at 972-450-6232.
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