By: Apr. 04, 2011
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It's easy to satirize the rich and powerful.  But there's a greater and more delicate art to poking fun at the lower classes.  While there is an impressive array of things to have fun with, poke too hard and you look condescending, poke too gently and no one laughs.  The Great American Trailer Park Musical, book by Betsy Kelso, music and lyrics by David Nehls, now in revival at Spotlighters, hits the happy medium.

A host of clichéd accoutrements are there: the criminality (guns and the electric chair), strippers and vibrators, prefab food (Pringles and spray cheese), TV talk programs that explore the sex lives of the ignorant and promiscuous while audiences hiss and boo, the Ice Capades as a great romantic date, and, of course house trailers.  But the characters seem somehow normal, in some sense in on the jokes, and that makes it okay to laugh.

Put it this way: the melodramatic circumstances of the characters' lives are no more grotesque than you'd find in Tennessee Williams, the central plot device (a long-missing child who turns up in an unexpected station in life) could be stolen direct from Gilbert and Sullivan, and the characters sing with all the cheerful verve of the swells on shipboard in Anything Goes.  Somehow this combination of ingredients blunts the patronizing sting this material might otherwise have imparted.  We in the audience can therefore laugh without discomfort.

And it doesn't hurt that this is such a likeable and magnetic cast. 

First mention has to go to the Muses of the trailer park (Armadillo Acres in Starke, FL): Betty (Maribeth Eckenrode), Pickles (Kristen Zwobot), and Lin (Cheryl Campo).  They serve as the chorus in both the Broadway sense of the word (doubling as trailer park housewives, strip club habitués of both sexes, and divas) and in the Greek theater sense (providing exposition and commentary on the action).  Most important, the three of them make amazing music together with tight harmonies that would do the Andrews Sisters proud.  I've seen photos of the original professional cast, and these Muses look more like people one would actually meet at an Armadillo Acres (Zwobot and Campo are big women, and Eckenrode, though of more average figure, is no one's ingénue), which is a plus, but at the same time I'm guessing their singing and dancing is on a par with that of the svelter set from more professional companies.

The purported principals, a love triangle plus one, start with Jeannie (Karina Ferry) and Norbert (R. Brett Rohrer).  Jeannie carries being a stay-at-home housewife to extremes, afflicted with agoraphobia that makes her unable to leave the trailer.  Norbert, a toll-collector with romantic yearnings not entirely satisfied at home, finds himself attracted to Pippi, a stripper on the lam (Eileen del Valle).  She in turn is on the lam because her murderous boyfriend Duke (Carlos del Valle) has a handgun and a hankering for revenge.  Together, they bring just the right touch of genuine melodrama to their roles to keep it interesting.  And Eileen del Valle's sense of humor is right out there both in her pastiche of strip club number, THE BUCK STOPS HERE (I'll leave you to figure out the meaning of that title), and in the "anthem" that closes the show, entitled simply FINALE, but which might better be known by the recurring inspirational line about "mak[ing] like a nail and press[ing] on."  All of them, when called on to sing, do just fine.

The Spotlighters' performance space, as Baltimore theatergoers know, is an interesting and often frustrating challenge – a theater-in-the-round (or really in the square) with four columns supporting the ceiling and interfering with sight-lines.  But notwithstanding those defects, it is actually an excellent space for a chamber musical.  The singers can be extremely close to each other, playing off each other rather than each other's amplified voices, as well as right on top of the audience, and when, as here, they're on pitch and on fire, even the most trivial musical fluff can get pretty intense.

That said, due credit should go to Michael Tan, the musical director, who must be responsible for much of that fluffy intensity.  And Fuzz Roark, the director, deserves credit for maintaining, from one end of the production to the other, not only a pace but a tone: of characters who are aware of their class-based foibles but comfortable with them, in on the joke as characters but not as actors.

Get in on the joke too.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, by Betsy Kelso and David Nehls, through April 24, at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202.  Tickets $20 (senior and student discounts). , 410-752-1225.  Adult language and situations.


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