I’ve seen Shondelle Pratt, to varying effect, in a few New productions lately, but for The Great American Trailer Park Musical, it’s as if Betty is the role she was born to play. Always charismatic and engaging, that indefinable something really comes to the fore as the generously-proportioned keeper of the keys at Armadillo Acres, the most exclusive caravan community in all northern Florida. She has the swagger and all the moves, not to mention a more than capable singing voice. Her constant companions are Lauren Kate Butler, as the ditsy Pickles (she and Pratt have all the comedic nuances deliciously down pat), and Shannon McKinn, as Lin (short for Linoleum, a reference to her conception on the kitchen floor).
Butler is a brilliant actor and has a shining voice, imbued with all the cliched commercial country music twang she can muster. McKinn seems a little less confident when out on her own and struggles a bit in her lower register, but can really put out at the top of her range.
Keira Daley is Jeannie, the dowdy, TV-addicted, agoraphobic housewife, married to slow-witted, undersexed toll collector Norbert (Julian Ramundi). Their anniversary is upcoming and Norbert has tickets to the Icecapades, but it’s all he can do to coax Jeannie as far as the front step of their claustrophobic trailer. When exotic dancer Pippi (Ines Vaz de Sousa) comes to the acres, unlikely Romeo Norbert embarks on a torrid affair with her. It’s enough to inspire Jeannie to obliterate all the knick-knacks in their trailer, a crime against humanity which Norbert world-wearily protests: ‘it’s the knick-knacks in a trailer that make it a home’. The plot thickens, as if to correspond to the single-digit IQs of the goodhearted, inbred holiday park-dwellers. The son (Duke, played by Max Newstead) kidnapped so many years earlier returns, six-shooter in hand, to take revenge on the man who’s stolen his estranged sweetheart (Pippi).
Vaz de Sousa is a particularly sassy singer and dancer and, as does the rest of the cast, she gives good accent. Newstead, too, is compelling as the dumbass, Texta-sniffing, wronged man, collecting roadkill on his way to reclaiming his woman. Daley, a commercially-neglected star of Australian musical theatre, again shows her versatility and capability as a fine singer and actor, while Ramundi has created, one surmises, a definitive Norbert, all the way down to his sunken posture and resigned, loser’s demeanour.
It’s ridiculous, funny and many of (but not all) the songs stand up well against any equivalent musical numbers. Jay James-Moody has made a good show of it and the ensemble singing is scintillating, but the energy levels sometimes flag and the overall effect is uneven. If the shtick evident in the opening and closing were present throughout, this cast and crew would really be onto something. As it is, it met with an overtly enthusiastic reception; rare, for whatever reason, in the normally subdued context of New Theatre.
Musical director Chris King is one of the show’s great strengths and his visibility almost makes him a character on the edge of the drama. Unfortunately, Jessica Burns’ sound design doesn’t always ensure lyrics are discernible. For example, though he has a good voice and one tempered to be thoroughly consistent with his character, Ramundi is sometimes a little recessive. Mikes would be well worth considering. Also, I’m not sure if Joey Pangalinan or James Harris was at the kit this particular evening but, either way, the drums were so muffled and deadened as to sound like a cheap-and-nasty rhythm generator; something I found constantly distracting. Moreover, sharper snare and cymbal sounds and the dynamics of the drum-kit generally would’ve made the whole show sound much more alive and exciting.
Simone Salle’s choreography often showed great wit and inventiveness; not least the driving sequence, in which Lin and Pickles are headlamps, windscreen-wipers and lean into curves. But there are other moments (which may be more down to James-Moody’s placements) where movement is obscured, at least from certain seats.
All-in-all, it’s a commendable, if somewhat patchy effort. If it can be wound a little tighter (the set, too, could be smartened up), this could be a musical with real legs, that could walk all over some of the ritzier, glitzier, more cynical exercises that pass for musicals these days. As with numerous pisstakes, it’s rendered with a quotient of sweetness, affection and empathy that makes it all the more appealing. Vaz de Sousa, Pratt and Butler, however, really shine. And it’s not just their capped teeth, or platinum, bottle-blonde hair.
Curtain Call rating: B+
The details: The Great American Trailer Park Musical plays New Theatre until December 18. Tickets on the company website.