Secrets, songs and single-wides


Mark Chambers and Catherine Fries Vaughn star as Norbert and Jeannie in "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" opening Friday at the Hippodrome. The preview performance starts at 8:15 tonight.

BRIANA BROUGH/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 12:16 a.m.

Facts

IF YOU GO: "The Great American Trailer Park Musical"

  • WHAT: Professional musical-comedy set in Starke
  • WHEN: Opens Friday and runs through the summer. Performances: 8:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.
  • WHERE: Hippodrome State Theatre, 25 SE 2nd Place
  • TICKETS: $12-$32; $10 for Starke residents (375-4477)
  • PREVIEW: Discounted preview performance starts at 8:15 tonight

  • Pippi the stripper is hiding at the Hipp. The leggy Oklahoma City native is on the lam from a boyfriend with a dog's name and an unhealthy affinity for cooking spray.
    Her hasty retreat led her down U.S. 301, where she landed a job at the Litterbox Showpalace and took refuge in a single-wide mobile home in Armadillo Acres - a typical Florida trailer community under the shadow of Starke's water tower.
    That's right, "The Great American Trailer Park Musical," the Hippodrome's raucous summer offering with an indefinite closing date, originated from a short-lived Off-Broadway musical set in Starke F-L-A, just northeast of Gainesville.
    But more on that later; first let's meet more neighbors.
    Our guides through this adventure - our narrative muses in sandals - are Betty, Pickles and Lin, the latter named for linoleum. Lin's husband, by the way, is on death row in the neighboring state prison plagued by a faulty electric chair.
    Pickles is married to a "fancy" man from Jacksonville who delights in foreign beer and community theater. Betty, meanwhile, inherited Armadillo Acres thanks to the tragic and quite convenient death of her husband.
    And then there's Norbert and Jeannie, the stars of this offbeat musical. Norbert is a toll collector, and Jeannie is a full-time agoraphobic. When we meet them, they are on the cusp of their 20th wedding anniversary; Ice Capades awaits - if only Jeannie can muster the courage to leave the trailer.
    She gains some motivation, however, once Pippi arrives and snags Norbert's attention, much to the delighted tittering of the neighborhood.
    Make no mistake, "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" is, indeed, a musical-comedy. For all the satiric pokes at small-town South, there are also the big voices of Broadway and the dreamy eyes and outstretched arms of the show-stopper - even if the lyrics do proclaim "I've got to make like a nail and press on."
    There is the happy ending, the second-act surprise and the big musical-ensemble finale. And, as with most musicals, there is a sincerity and old-fashioned sweetness among these characters - even as they fire off some bawdy trailer talk laced with a few f-bombs.
    Written by David Nehls (music/lyrics) and Betsy Kelso (book), "Trailer Park" is a comedy on the blue-collar South, as well as its stereotypes. It is a play laden with bittersweet showtunes and trash talk. It is a play that had Director Lauren Caldwell, after a recent rehearsal, seriously asking actress Kelly Atkins if her movement problem in the second act was caused by unsteady spike heels or a G-string snag.
    "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" is where Wisteria Lane meets rural U.S. 301, a place with good people and poorly kept secrets - in short, a place just like any place on the map.
    "I have a friend from Jacksonville who suggested Starke as the location," Nehls wrote in an e-mail to The Sun this week. "He said it would be 'perfect,' and he has been proven right."
    At the Hippodrome, Scenic Designer Mihai Ciaupe built a set based on real landmarks in Starke - a motel sign, the water tower, a Brahma (or bull?) statue. Additionally, there are references to the state prison and an electric chair, although here it is called "Old Smokey" instead of "Old Sparky."
    The play has stirred some skepticism from Starke's mayor, Steve Futch, who said recently he would have preferred the Hippodrome use a fictitious city name for a stage comedy about trailer parks. And while there are a few Starke-flavored jokes, Caldwell contends this is a good-hearted story that represents any community where gossip flows freely and neighbors know WAY too much about each other.
    Nehls agrees.
    "My main hope is that folks have a great time, forget the problems of the day and get some good, hard laughs out of a situation that can happen anywhere - trailer parks or Park Ave.," he noted. "We just hope everyone takes the humor in the spirit it is intended - just good rowdy fun.
    "I am from 'white trash,' so this is an homage to my people, if you will. And I hope people love these characters as much as I do and sympathize with their plight."
    The Hippodrome's production is the musical's first time out of New York City. Nehls is a friend of cast member and Hipp veteran Cindy Thrall (Betty), who initially flagged Caldwell about the quirky musical based in Starke.
    In October, Caldwell and Hippodrome Prop Designer Lorelei Esser found themselves in NYC and saw "Trailer Park."
    "We had a ball. It was pretty much rock 'n' roll," Caldwell recalled. She left the theater with one thought: "How can I bring this to Gainesville?"
    After the musical closed in December, the cast and crew were considering a tour when the Hippodrome - a professional company - requested the rights to it. The first response was no. The Hipp continued to press, and, according to Caldwell, Nehls himself stepped in and saved the day.
    "I don't know how much I had to do with 'Trailer Park' playing the Hippodrome," Nehls noted, "but being that it is so close to where the action takes place, I am very excited by it happening.
    "Most of what I know of the theater itself comes from friends of mine who have worked there and had positive experiences. I know they've done some offbeat shows . . . and our rowdy little show fits in with that company very well."

    Notes, quotes & 'Trailer' talk

  • Cast members Mackenzie Curran (Pickles) and Ted Stephens (Duke) are University of Florida students; Jennifer Anderson was cast as Lin just before she graduated Summa Cum Laude from UF with a degree in Musical Theatre.
  • Professional actor Mark Chambers ("A Tuna Christmas," "Dracula," "Shear Madness") plays Norbert, a toll collector who lives in Starke. In reality, the closest toll booths to Starke are in Leesburg, Palm Coast and islands off southeast Georgia.
  • In the play, Pippi is an exotic dancer who lands a job at Starke's Litterbox Showpalace. In reality, Starke does not have any strip clubs.
  • Chambers and Cindy Thrall (Betty) are professional actors who last appeared on the Hippodrome stage together in 2001's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." They also worked together in the Hipp's "Rocky Horror Show."
  • Other "Rocky" connections: Thrall spent nine months in Europe touring with "The Rocky Horror Show" (movie and play) creator Richard O'Brien's company. She also sang back-up vocals for Meat Loaf on one of his tours. Mr. Loaf, of course, also played the ill-fated Eddie in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
  • On her "Trailer Park" character, Thrall said: "I feel like Betty is in everybody's pocket." Betty, Thrall continued, loves her community, but she also loves it "when the fur flies."
  • Kelly Atkins plays Pippi, a stripper in very high heels. Atkins last appeared at the Hippodrome in last summer's musical, "8-Track: The Sounds of the '70s" - as a disco dancer in very high platform shoes.
  • Anderson has lived in Alachua County for most of her life. Asked if she could relate to any of the characters in "Trailer Park," she said with a laugh: "I've met a lot. I have some people in my family who are very much like that."
  • "Once I started reading (the part of) Pickles, I loved her," said Curran. "She's like the little sister always wanting to be along for the ride."
  • Musical Director Bryan Mercer, now an Atlanta resident, grew up in a trailer home in Lynne (in the Ocala National Forest).
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