Review: The Great American Trailer Park Musical by Austin Theatre Project
by David Glen Robinson
Ground Floor Theatre on the east side of Austin is making a specialty of musicals and has become the official home base of the Austin Theatre Project (ATP). The latest offering from this impressive team is The Great American Trailer Park Musical, music by David Nehls, book by Betsy Kelso. The show premiered in New York in 2004.
The ATP production impresses with the first glimpse of the set, the exteriors of three ticky-tacky house trailers set in an even tackier trailer park. The set comes with characters to match, and the entire appeal of the show quickly becomes the ironic feel of down-at-heel characters singing and dancing in powerful production numbers. This appeal is fulfilled by the performances, and the show quickly transcends its premise and becomes an unabashed musical comedy masterpiece. The show employs somewhat embarrassing White Trash ethnic stereotypes a la comedian Jeff Foxworthy. But rather than condescending to them the show universalizes the unfortunate condition of trailer park existence and finds keen adult humor living there.
Michelle Cheney leads the highly talented cast. Comedians and others talk about the quality of being funny, or “having funny,” as a primary, innate talent much like musical composition or writing. Michelle Cheney is the proof of the assertion. She has funny and leads the audience on a journey from laugh riot to screamfest.
Cheney is not alone in having comedic talent. Amanda Serra goes all in as the daffy, eye-rolling Pickles. Her timing in her throw-away lines is impeccable. Wendy Zavaleta as the agoraphobic dishonored wife, Jeannie, is, believe it or not, a more subdued role compared to some of the others. Zavaleta shines in her showcase songs “Owner of my Heart,” “But He’s Mine/It’s Never Easy,” and “Panic.”
Taylor Moessenger is poised for musical theatre stardom, and her role as the stripper and femme fatale Pippi (her rivals pronounce it pee-pee) may be looked back upon as her breakout role. Moessenger plays and sings the sleazy, shallow, and selfish Pippi to perfection. Director Jeff Hinkle’s program notes describe Moessenger as “the angelic-voiced wunderkind,” and this is certainly apt. Sarah Burke, watch your back.
Chris Ehresman plays Duke, one of Pippi’s love interests, and Ehresman also contributes serviceable Broadway choreography to the show. Duke is muscled, criminal, violent, and his only flaw is inhalant abuse. As Pippi sings, “everyone knows sniffin’ is the highway to huffin’.”
It is hard to choose among the peak musical numbers, but certainly “The Great American TV Show,” “Storm’s A-Brewin’,” and “Road Kill” are stand-out, large, and well-performed production numbers. The foundation of all these songs’ success is the live music accompanying them. The music was performed by a four-piece band led by musical director David Blackburn. His flawless musicians were Kyle Welch, Brice Rafferty, and Nathan Langfitt. Shows with music live in performance have an audible advantage over those with canned music, so much that “live music” should be written across the posters and advertising of all the shows that have it.
The costumes are so God-awful they’re genius. The wigs are marvels of trailer park craft and they work equally well on the girls when they portray male customers attending a strip club. Costume credit goes to Veronica Prior, and there is no separate credit for the wigs.
The set design, however, showed a lapse in the overall design quality of the show. On several occasions stage hands walked on stage in full view long before the songs were finished and began to change the set for the next scene. This was distracting beyond belief, and grew in annoyance to loom as a production design error. The stage hands’ worthy efforts were made to change panels that would reveal or close a trailer’s interior. Surely this could have been accomplished another way without stepping on the performers’ work and the audience’s attention?
This is ultimately a small issue relative to the overall high production values of this complex show; however, ATP staff several times have stated and written with understandable relief that they have moved the company permanently from the Dougherty Arts Center to the new, high-quality production facility that is Ground Floor Theatre. Everyone appreciates this change in its fullness, but more work needs to be done. This statement is offered in a spirit of encouragement, and in no way can it detract from the success of ATP’s production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical.
The Great American Trailer Park Musical is highly recommended for adults. It contains salty language and adult situations involving adults behaving like children. The show runs until June 27th, 2015 at Ground Floor Theatre, 929 Springdale Road in east Austin.
June 12 - June 27, 2015
979 Springdale Rd
Austin, TX, 78702
Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
Matinee Saturday, June 20 at 2 p.m.
Tickets $20 - $35, plus service charge, available via