As a child growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, composer-lyricist David Nehls was happy to arrive at a nearby trailer park. "In the wintertime, I was out for like an hour and a half delivering papers and they were always the people who had hot cocoa and cookies for me and would always engage me in conversation. They were the coolest people on the paper route; and they were so lovely."
The idea to portray these earthy folk on the stage — which had "always been a nugget in the back of my head" — returned to Nehls when he was searching to put together an evening of cabaret. But when he and his collaborator bookwriter Betsy Kelso worked on it, they found there was much more story than just songs and The Great American Trailer Park Musical was born.
Flash forward to 2004 — after the work had undergone a reading and the creators had walked away from it for about two years — and the mobile-home musical resurfaced. "A friend emailed me the entry form [for the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival]. I was working out in Denver and Betsy was out in L.A." The team decided to give it "one last hurrah."
The work was accepted for the new festival and enjoyed a limited run. Trailer Park—now reworked (only two of the original trunk songs to be used for the cabaret are left in the show) and recast—features a slew of stage veterans. Original NYMF cast member Marya Grandy is joined by Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley (Oklahoma, "Van Helsing"), Linda Hart (Hairspray, Anything Goes), Kaitlin Hopkins (Bat Boy, Noises Off, Bare), Leslie Kritzer (Hairspray, Bat Boy), Wayne Wilcox (A Man of No Importance, The Light in the Piazza) and Orfeh (Saturday Night Fever, Footloose).
The central story revolves around the regular guy Norbert (Hensley) and his agoraphobic wife Jeannie (Hopkins) whose 20-year marriage is threatened by Armadillo Acres' newcomer, the hot young stripper Pippi (Orfeh). The trailer park also plays home to a Greek chorus-like trio of women (Grandy, Hart and Kritzer) — each dysfunctional in their own right. The comedy marks a change in pace for the actors portraying the show's love triangle. "It's the first time in quite a while I haven't been the mom of some freaky kid — between Bare and Bat Boy, " Hopkins told Playbill.com at a recent press preview.
"Quite often I get asked to play characters that are sort of very sophisticated and erudite and classy and I think it really appealed to me to be white trash, frankly," she said with a increasingly mischievous smile, "to have an opportunity to play someone who's very different from generally the way people see me."
"We're not often hired for comedic roles," Orfeh concurs. "We're all thought of as serious kind of actors. And, as people, if you were to ask our friends or people we work with, we're really big cut-ups. I finally get to do what's closest to me as a person." She quickly added: "She's a bit trashier."
Hensley — who will next star in the Disney musical stage version of Tarzan — is relishing in his newfound role. "I'm cast so much as the villains and stuff. [Norbert] is the everyman who gets caught in a guy's dream situation — two women fighting over him — but it quickly turns into a nightmare." Another selling point for the Oklahoma! Tony winner was the familiar territory. "It's set in the South, where I was born and raised, [and has the] country western rock music that I grew up with."
Of his upcoming turn, Hensley said he was excited to work on another new type of show, which he described as "part De La Guarda, part regular musical theatre." Even more enthused by the prospect of his role in Tarzan were his children. "We went to the Atlanta zoo and my five year old girl, Skyler, saw the gorilla cage and said 'Look, there you are daddy.'"
Grandy — who plays Lin (short for Linoleum) — describes her part of the trashy trio as "The sassiest of them. Pickles is very sweet, Betty is sort of like the den mother. [They] help to tell the story and play different characters throughout." Kritzer — the youngest gal in the park, who suffers from "hysterical pregnancy" — says Pickles is a welcome character for her, combining sketch comedy and musicals. "There's a couple of screws loose; she's not the brightest, but she has a big heart."
Those who caught The Great American Trailer Park Musical at the NYMF will get to see a number of new additions to the script. "The book has changed, there are two new numbers, the second act is immeasurably different from what it was in the festival," said Nehls about the changes. "We replaced the ballad 'She's Perfection' with a huge, sprawling operatic, punk rock number called 'Big Billy's No-Tell Motel' and Jeannie has a new opening number — instead of 'Afternoon Tea' she now sings a song called 'Immobile in My Mobile Home.'" Summing up about his mobile-home musical with heart, he says "There's a new energy to the show and we're breathing more life into it."
Producers Jean Doumanian and Jeffrey Richards team to present the work starting Aug. 20 start at Dodger Stages toward a Sept. 15 opening.
For more information on The Great American Trailer Park Musical, visit the website at www.trailerparkmusical.com.