Review: The Great American Trailer Park Musical

The term “trailer park” brings many images to mind for the average American: neatly lined portable housing painted in bright colors, tornado torn neighborhoods bearing ravaged scars from the storm, lawn ornaments, tenants with bad hair or missing teeth, the list goes on and on. Whether these stereotypes are true or not is not the question for discussion at Theatre on the Square’s latest Indianapolis performing arts offering. Rather, Theatre on the Square delves boldly into these cliches to share the humane comedy in such stereotypes in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Running now through June 26, 2010, this Mass Ave theatre serves up another slice of richly flavored comedy, where tacky and tasteless are the goals and no American stereotype is off limit

This remounted version of The Great American Trailer Park Musical first enjoyed handsome success at Theatre on the Square in 2006. All the original cast members return to revisit this hilarious send up of life in a rural Florida trailer park, where resident scandals abound. Theatre on the Square proves itself a master house of comedy once more in this ridiculous and bright comic-musical. A cast of caricatures populate Armadillo Acres, an independently owned trailer park in the rural town of Stark, Florida. Though the show deals mainly with outlandish figures whose intersecting lives create a chaotic love triangle, The Great American Trailer Park Musical’s great sense of humor stems from kernels of truth that hold a mirror to our own identity as Americans. Though crazy characters share their zany, often times tacky, lifestyle with the audience, the funniest moments stem from the characters more honest basis in reality.

It’s no mistake, I’m sure, that Artistic Director Ron Spencer programmed the opening weekend of this show to coincide with the running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Each Memorial Day weekend, the West side of the Circle City becomes a stomping, partying ground for throngs of beer guzzling citizens whose celebration of a gas fueled Indianapolis sport reflects American dependence on oil. Shirtless men roam the concrete jungle inside and out of the motor speedway, traveling from RV to camp tent and meeting fellow like minded Americans. Though indirectly, The Great American Trailer Park Musical is a similar celebration of the boundaries to which the definition of American freedom extends in the United States. After all, isn’t our greatest patriotic triumph the ability to live the life you choose without fear of punishment or judgment?

At its most simple, The Great American Trailer Park Musical presents a torrid (yet typical) love triangle that tears the Garstecki family apart. As Jeannie (Juli Inskeep) and Norbert (Darrin Gowan) approach their twentieth wedding anniversary, their marriage has reached a sad stalemate. Jeannie, who suffers from a severe case of agoraphobia, hasn’t left the house for more than a decade following the tragic kidnapping of her baby son and an even more tragic perm that distracted her. Norbert’s attempts to lure her out of the house with an anniversary celebration at the Ice Capades are met with Jeannie’s timid attachment to the front door jam. This pathetic husband finds solace in the arms of a stripper, Pippi (Niki Hurrle Warner) on the run from her ex-boyfriend Duke (Justin Ivan Brown), making her a likely neighbor in the Armadillo Acres trailer park. The story is propelled with the help of three lovely ladies, Betty (Janet Ransdell), Lin (Vickie Cornelius) and Pickles (Rebecca McConnell), who compose both a narrative chorus and don various characters throughout the show.

My favorite facet of The Great American Trailer Park Musical was by far the narrative threesome. In a fifties d00-woop vein, these crooning characters provide backup throughout the show, helping to propel the story forward as Armadillo Acres ambassadors to the audience. As the only characters who directly address the crowd in front of them, Betty, Lin (short for Linoleum, because she was born on the kitchen floor) and Pickles offer three varied perspectives on not only typical trailer park residents but on the stereotypes of women across the United States. They set the scene not only through songs like “This Side of the Tracks,” which acts as a trailer park anthem declaring themselves on neither the wrong or right side of the train tracks, but they also help to establish setting through their personas.

Betty acts as the fiercely independent owner of Armadillo Acres and leader of the pack. In the role, Janet Ransdell offers moments of sheer vocal power that reflects her singular sensibilities, belting above the band. Though Theatre on the Square’s opening night was plagued by sound issues that prevented the use of microphones, the cast as a whole rose above the problem in true “the show must go on” fashion. Later when Ransdell does a send up of Sally Jesse Raphael for the song “The Great American TV Show,” she typifies the American talk show host in a way that highlights the trash our televisions are filled with.

As the tough cookie Lin, Vickie Cornelius presents a picture perfect image of the bad girl with a husband on death row. Cornelius shares a wonderfully free sense of comic timing as a crass addition to the trio. Concerned with her conjugal visits and keeping her husband alive by foiling the plans of the State prison through her exhaustive use of electricity, at one point she declares, “Rendezvous…that’s French for fucking.” Her control of Lin’s profane wit propels Cornelius into the spotlight on more than a few occasions.

As the ditsy Pickles, Rebecca McConnell is simply delightful. She plays the sexually loose woman who suffers from hysterical pregnancy and a few missing marbles upstairs pushing the boundaries of comedy to the limit without stepping over the line. She doubles as the notable part of Tina, a less than industrious worker at a mall food court shop specializing in Mexican dessert called “Stand By Your Flan.” But McConnell shines the brightest in the end Act One disco inspired dance number “Storms A’Brewin’.” Dressed in matching gold lemay outfits, the cast admirably performs a daring disco number in which McConnell is the easy standout as she flings herself wholly into every move.

Each member of the chorus offers original and important individual contributions to the overall success of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Thus, their effectiveness increases exponentially as they work together to create a fluid framework for the story. In a strategic move of creativity on behalf of writers David Nehls and Betsy Kelso, the trio offers a flexibility that allows the story to unfold as it needs to. These women fill all the parts from male guests at Pippi’s strip club to Jeannie’s best friends, all the while creating an easy entry point for the audience to follow.

In a musical where the name The Great American Trailer Park Musical immediately conveys big, bright, tacky and over done, broadly sketched characters are to be expected. But neither Darrin Gowan nor Julie Inskeep (as Norbert and Jeannie) play too far into this trap. Though they are, no doubt, caricatures of trailer park residents, they also bring sincerity to their roles that focus the play on universal humanity, rather simply than slogging through comic trash from beginning to end.

As one of the two female heroines, which tear Norbert Garstecki apart, Juli Inskeep offers a sweet caricature of a woman plagued by great heartbreak. Inskeep plays the agoraphobic shut in, whose bad perm and missing son have kept her in-of-doors for over a decade, with a gentle hand. Though she, like every other character, is sketched in a broad caricature-ish light, Inskeep keeps her head on her shoulders as she plays the tragic figure, never over doing it (or rather only overdoing it when called for).

As Norbert, Darrin Gowan is just right. Mixing a perfect blend of a man trapped in a boring marriage with a troubled wife, Gowan’s baby face propels the audience to see his side of things. Its not so hard to believe that this lonely man would seek solace in the arms of a questionable woman. And though Gowan’s physicality makes him an unlikely ladies man, its easy to believe how two women could fall for him at once. Through it all, Gowan’s Norbert is never sleazy nor does he objectify the women he involves himself with. Gaining empathy as the cheating husband is no easy feat, yet Gown pulls it off winningly.

While Gown and Inskeep blend both caricatured comedy and sincerity to create successful performances, Niki Hurle Warner as Pippi falls short in an unexpected way. Warner seems uncomfortable as the sexual object. Though she has impressive moves on a flag pole bearing the Star and Stripes turned stripper pole, Warner is unable to shake a sense of insecurity in the alluring role that keeps her caricature from coming to full fruition. She depends largely on the sympathy vote to carry her through, choosing to play sweet in place of hardened. Her character just doesn’t seem to fit in the broadly sketched comic framework in which the other characters are working in, making it hard to follow her story throughout. She does, however, deserve props for rocking a risque shoe collection of nine inch platform pumps in varying colors.

Finally in the villainous role of Duke, Justin Ivan Brown suffers from the opposite problem, through no fault of his own. With little given him in the way of “real human,” Duke is sketched by the playwrights to be entirely caricature. With even less time on stage to develop much else, Brown throws himself into the twitchy role. His humanness is pealed away by his drug habit enabled by a Costco membership. With an introductory song “Road Kill,” threatening to litter the wake of his path with road kill, Duke’s primary responsibility is to catalyze a climax through his appearance at Armadillo Acres. Brown is hilarious in the process as he understands his place as a cog in this American musical machine.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical at Theatre on the Square offers downright good fun. Their latest Indianapolis performing arts offering perfectly punctuates the end of their 2009-10 season of comedies. I have to admit that Theatre on the Square has unexpectedly pushed its way into my heart, and I can’t wait to see what Ron Spencer gives us next season. Stay tuned to Indianapolis theatre on Fun City to find out. Tickets to The Great American Trailer Park Musical are $25.00 for Indianapolis people and $20.00 for military personnel, seniors and students.

Before the show, treat yourself and a date to dinner at any of these fabulous Indianapolis restaurants in Indianapolis downtown. Afterward, keep the comedy coming with drinks from any of these refreshing Indianapolis bars in the Indianapolis cultural district, Mass Ave. Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. We cover Indianapolis arts to Indianapolis shopping and everything in between. This is Katelyn Coyne saying, “Get out in Indy and find some fun!”

The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Now through June 26, 2010

Theatre on the Square
627 Massachusetts Ave
Indianapolis, IN 46204