When it premiered off-Broadway in 2005, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” was intended as a lighthearted piece of intentionally offensive satire in the vein of “South Park” or “Family Guy.” In our current era, though, with soul-searching about the fate of poor, white America in books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and shows like “Roseanne,” it’s difficult to not see the extremely problematic side of this text.
TexArts’ new production of the play is a high-spirited, rollicking rendition that attempts to overcome those textual failings by focusing on the female empowerment aspects of the plot. But it is still somewhat mired in a troubling caricature of a subset of Americans brimming with deep resentment and simmering class and racial tensions.
All of this, of course, is a very rarified way to talk about a goofy show that features an up-tempo song called “Road Kill,” but the structure of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” — with a book by Betsy Kelso and music and lyrics by David Nehls — does trade in some very classical allusions. As much as it is a satire of trailer park life, it also has fun with the structure of Greek comedy, featuring a singing chorus of three female “Fates” and a plot with some passing similarities to that of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
In their portrayal of these three narrators, Boni Hester as Betty, Cara Statham Serber as Lin and Alyssa Malgeri as Pickles are all manic wit, assaying a variety of personalities and emphasizing the numerous ways in which clever, driven women are able to get one over on dull-witted men. The plot, on the other hand, revolves around the lives of four characters — hapless toll collector Norbert (Jarret Mallon), his agoraphobic wife Jeannie (Julie Foster), his “stripper-on-the-run” mistress Pippi (Emily Villarreal), and Pippi’s violent ex-boyfriend Duke (Zach Thompson).
Mallon, Foster and Villarreal wring some real pathos out of the story, with sympathetic, nuanced performances that often give more respect to the characters than does the text. Thompson, meanwhile, provides the most over-the-top performance, and gets some of the biggest laughs; this is aided in no small part by the fact that the jokes at Duke’s expense constitute some of the few times that the text is “punching up,” at an abuser, rather than punching down at the poverty-stricken.
Director Sarah Gay does her utmost to downplay the more offensive “white trash” elements of the show; her vision of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” is clearly one that focuses on the ways in which women overcome hardship (often caused by men) in order to, as one lyric goes, “like a nail, press on.” And though this is, indeed, the laudable side of the text, there is still an inherent elitist nastiness to much of the humor that is impossible to overlook.
It is unlikely that “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” has mean-spirited intentions, either when it was written or in TexArts’ newest incarnation of the play. However, the text fundamentally lacks a necessary layer of irony that would make its humor productive, rather than at the expense of an entire class and community. Though TexArts’ production adds in a great deal of sympathetic nuance, in the end that complexity is frequently overwhelmed by the simplistic, mocking nature of so much of the musical.
“The Great American Trailer Park Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, with 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 performance, through Sept. 1
Where: TexArts, 2300 Lohman’s Spur