Produced by: Los Altos Stage Company
Featuring: Vanessa Alvarez, Mylissa Malley, Christina Bolognini, Jen Wheatonfox, Aaron Hurley, Courtney Hatcher and Clinton Williams
Directed by: Linda Piccone
When: September 4-28, 2014
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Avene, Los Altos, California
Tickets: $18-$36. Visit www.losaltosstage.org, call 650-941-0551 or email email@example.com
To get the obvious out of the way, "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" isn't great, but as produced in the Bus Barn Theatre by Los Altos Stage Company, it is a lot of fun, and offers audiences about lebenty-seben chances to laugh out loud.
It's a little too coarse, and doesn't offer enough interesting, good songs, to be great.
But, the Los Altos show has a very good cast, and the best set I've ever seen in that old building that really did once house buses.
The show, with music and lyrics by David Nehls and books by Betsy Kelso, is one of the funniest I've seen of late that wasn't "Spamalot." And this cast, wonderfully directed by Bay Area theater treasure Linda Piccone, are all able actors who are very, very good with comedy.
Most of them are not up to the full challenge of Nehls' score, though, including "Finale," which is an anthem that seems to call for someone with the vocal chops of, say, Jennifer Holliday.
But that's OK. Everybody in this small cast sings well enough nobody goes off key or off time anyway it's just that they don't always sing with power. Except Jen Wheatonfox, who stands out as the strongest singer in this crew.
But that anthem, "Finale," isn't her solo. That tough task falls to Courtney Hatcher, who is hilarious and wonderful to watch as the stripper, Pippi, who invades the close-knit little trailer park of Armadillo Acres, to get away from her crazy, violent ex-boyfriend, Duke.
We've already met the residents, starting with Betty, Lin and Pickles, who serve as the harmonizing Greek chorus and utility players, getting the story across to us. Betty's the mature one. A line she delivers lets us know what this show is going to be like: "It's not my fault that cock-smokin', tongue-waggin', cheese-suckin' dick-in-a-bag doesn't know a lady when he sees one."
Language, wit, irony. It's actually a masterful script in some ways, that finds plenty of humor in the rednecks of Florida, but does so without being mean-spirited, and even has a little triumphant if unlikely story to tell of people who change their lives for the better.
Back to the Greek chorus: Lin's real name is Linoleum, because that's the kind of kitchen floor her mom was laying on when she gave birth. Her husband's on death row, but the state can't fry him in the electric chair unless almost all electricity is off in their little city of Starke, Florida. So Lin goes around making sure everybody has their power on.
Pickles is young and not so bright, and thinks she is pregnant, but everyone else thinks it's a hysterical pregnancy, just because she wants to give her fancy boy husband (whom we never meet) a new family.
Vanessa Alvarez, who is always wonderful to watch, is Betty. Mylissa Malley is Lin and Christina Bolognini is Pickles. The three of them handle a lot of fine harmony making, and play a number of extra roles, from redneck guys at a strip club to a server at a flan shop who doesn't know what flan is.
Wheatonfox is Jeannie Garstecki, an agoraphobic who hasn't been out of her trailer since her son was kidnapped 20 years before. It says something about this show that Piccone found ways to make agoraphobia and child-kidnapping funny.
Aaron Hurley plays Jeannie's husband, Norbert, who is pretty frustrated about his wife not being willing to leave their trailer all this time. And there are hints that maybe their bedroom life hasn't been too great of late, either. Hurley brings depth of character to this odd part. Sure, Norbert got married right out of high school when she got pregnant, sure he's not happy with how their lives have gone, but he's been true to her.
Until he accidentally goes to a strip club and meets Pippi. We've already seen Hatcher doing her strip routine in front of the chorus, who've become redneck men who stuff her shorts with greenbacks. Sadly, there is never any real nudity, but we do get to see Hatcher's magnificent abs, which seem to be made of steel. (Our guess: She does stomach crunches every five minutes, wherever she is.)
Pippi thinks Norbert is just another hick, wanting to hit on her. "You have any idea what it's like to just stand here and collect dollar bill after dollar bill after dollar bill?" she asks.
"Yes, I do," he says. "I'm a toll-taker."
Last to arrive in dialogue is Clinton Williams as Duke, Pippi's psycho ex-boyfriend, and he is so over the top and so hilarious he almost steals the whole show. Except there is always so much going on in this nutty hurricane of humor that no one actor can control all eyes. But Williams really comes close, with his crotch-forward redneck strut, Marks-a-Lots strapped to his arm because he likes the smell and the cooking spray he is willing to share for huffing, because he has a Costco card.
But, watch something stage left for a while, then be surprised to look stage right and see Wheatonfox as Jeannie, on the porch of her trailer, crawling desperately, trying to reach the sidewalk in front with her agoraphobic foot hooked on the door frame.
The night I went, Saturday, I happened to be looking stage right when right in front of me at stage left, Alvarez got her foot caught on a bit of swimming pool coping, apparently, and broke something. In her foot or ankle. (The person sitting next to me saw it happen.) A real trouper, Alvarez danced through that song, "Storm's A-Brewin'," then showed up a few minutes later with an stretch bandage around her ankle. After the curtain call, another of the chorus had to practically carry her out of the auditorium.
As I type this, the show is being reblocked, and I don't know if Alvarez will show up in a walking cast, on crutches, in a wheelchair, or just spend the show sitting in a lawn chair.
The show has a kind of main story Jeannie and Norbert and several smaller tales, that all sort of get tied up at the end, in a fashion that perhaps defies logic but is certainly funny.
And that big anthem that Hatcher (and the rest of the company) sings? It has a very funny refrain I will leave for you to discover when you go.
The set, by scenic designer and technical director Jaime Giovannone, is fabulous. We, the audience, sit in the dried up swimming pool of the trailer park, able to see a couple of colorful trailers to our left and right, and the excellent four-piece band in a park pavilion in the background. The trailers are slightly cutaway, so we can see who has knick-knacks and who doesn't. Props, from folding lawn chairs to strings of out-of-season Christmas lights, are by Ting-Na Wang, and help bring Armadillo Acres to life.
Light by Carol Fischer and sound by Gary Landis and Dan Wilson are excellent. Costumes by Courtney Flores help tell the story, from Jeannie's rather dowdy look to Pippi's hotness, with plenty of variety between.
The band, with musical director Katie Coleman on piano, Tim Roberts on guitar, Gus Kambeitz on bass and Lane Sanders on drums, is excellent. The sound mix was just right all show, which seldom happens in small venues.
One last joke I will mention: Betty, Lin and Pickles go to the mailbox, where each has received a magazine. Betty has her thin but normal-size one, Mobil Homes and Gardens. Pickles gets a tiny one, Hysterically Pregnant Woman Quarterly.
But Lin's periodical is huge! It's the North Florida Prison Wife Digest.
This month's cover story? "Keeping Conjugal Visits Fresh. Ideas for That Special Behind-Bars Rendezvous."
She explains to the audience: "Rendezvous. That's French for fuckin'."
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org