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"The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical," November 20 - December 19, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

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Trustus Theatre's “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical”  Delivers Down-Home Raunchy Fun Implied In Title

Review by August Krickel

There's something to be said for truth in advertising. If you look at the festive poster outside Trustus Theatre proclaiming its latest production, you'll see a woman entangled in Christmas lights, sporting a Dolly Parton-style blonde wig topped a pair of tacky antlers; she's wearing assorted dime-store jewelry, and is trying to strike a sexy pose while simultaneously blowing a huge bubble of bubblegum. Upon beholding this sight, you're likely to exclaim either "Oh my God, that looks funny as hell!" or "Oh my God, that's dreadful - it looks like it's straight out of some trailer park!" Both are actually true, and as the title above her head confirms, you’ve arrived at The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical (TGATPCM.)  And the title quite accurately sums up the nature of the evening's entertainment. So if that hasn't scared you off, then by all means, read on.

Directed by Larry Hembree, who confesses in the program notes to spending part of his childhood living in a trailer, TGATPCM is a sequel to a similarly-titled show (just drop the word "Christmas") that was such a big hit for Trustus in 2010 that it was successfully revived the next year. Both shows came close to selling out, and so it was only a matter of time until the holiday-themed sequel, with music and lyrics by David Nehls and book by Betsy Kelso, was bound to turn up. No knowledge of the original production or plot is necessary, however, as this work stands on its own concrete blocks. The setting is .... ok, spoiler alert here: the setting is in a trailer park, at Christmas. Armadillo Acres, in northern Florida, to be precise, and everyone is full of holiday spirit (which is actually homemade "keg-nog.")  Even the meth lab is cooking ham instead of crystal, says resident manager Betty (Vicky Saye Henderson.) She and gal pals Lin (Abigail Ludwig) - short for Linoleum because her mama gave birth to her on a kitchen floor - and teenage single mom Pickles (Katie Leitner) are all agog upon learning that their trailer park is in the running for a big cash prize from Mobile Homes and Gardens Magazine for best holiday decorations.

Good-natured doofus Rufus (Kevin Bush) goes all out every year, festooning his trailer's facade with as much kitschy goodness as can be found on sale at the 99-cent store.  Yet the nemesis on his premises is grumpy next-door-neighbor Darlene (Caroline Jones Weidner), a singlewide Scrooge who naturally hates Christmas.  Just as surely as a good ol' boy is likely to shout "Hey y'all, watch this!" before coming close to killing himself, we know that Darlene will follow some journey similar to Scrooge's, emerging as a better neighbor and a better human being. There are added complications involving Darlene's sleazy boss and boyfriend Jackie (Matthew DeGuire), possible eviction of the main characters from the trailer park, and even a vengeful spirit/demon on the loose, but the real reason for this show's existence is to enable some trashy and campy characters to make silly jokes about the holidays from their unique viewpoint, and to sing some pretty songs in the same vein.  As above, the title explains exactly what you're getting, so you're unlikely to be disappointed - just as long as you make sure to reflect on the title and all that it implies.

Vocally, there's not a weak link in the cast, and if you've seen other musicals in Columbia, many of the best featured some or all of these performers in various combinations; many of those shows owed their musical excellence to music director Randy Moore, whose local credits include Godspell, Evil Dead the Musical, See Rock City, [title of show], and The Producers. Here, Moore leads a four-piece band that is appropriately and hilariously enclosed in chicken wire. Believe it or not, the score isn't really country music, not even country-tinged rock. Instead, it's mainstream, contemporary, nearly-schmaltzy Broadway pop, but sung by the cast as if it's country music. In other words, everyone uses heavy Southern accents, and Bush in particular employs a sort of nasal twang to give his numbers an extra countrified sound. Bush is almost unrecognizable under scruffy whiskers, a camo hat, and jeans held together by duct tape, and he effectively uses his lower register in both speaking and singing to create a very different character from those he's played before. Still, his duet with Weidner, "Christmas Memories," is quite sweet and pretty, and could just as easily be some unreleased Carrie Underwood/Garth Brooks collaboration. "Black and Blue on Christmas Eve" is another appealing tune, but here Bush delivers the song entirely in character - and his character happens to be falling-down drunk.  Bush commits to the concept, and manages to make the song work, while still remaining believable as a good ol' boy who's one bottle of cheap gin over the line.  Weidner's solo "My Christmas Tin Toy Boy" similarly shows off her attractive voice.  DeGuire gets to swagger Elvis-style in "Baby I'll Be Your Santa Claus," and generates plenty of laughs as the proprietor of Stacks, a breakfast franchise that combines the business models of IHOP and Hooters.  Henderson, Ludwig, and Leitner get no real solos, but have the bulk of the comic lines, and serve as a sort of Greek Chorus for the trailer park and as backup singers for their castmates. Henderson is probably the funniest, Leitner the cutest and most energetic, while Ludwig has less business on stage, but seems the most natural and convincing as a down-home honey.

Nehls' score is derivative, probably intentionally so, and I caught melodic echoes of everything from stage musicals like Pump Boys and Dinettes (which this show is somewhat reminiscent of) and Big River, to Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" and Charlie Daniels' "Uneasy Rider."  But those homages tie in with the show's overall raison d'etre, which counts on the audience being familiar with the stock characters and situations we're seeing.  Sound by Baxter Engle and lighting by Bill West-Davis are excellent, and are used effectively at some crucial moments in the proceedings. Brandon McIver's set isn't fancy, but c'mon - it's supposed to be a trailer park, and it does indeed look like one.  One excellent detail I spotted was that the interior of Rufus's and Darlene's trailers can be seen when they open their respective front doors, rather than just simple black masking. Kelso's book is chock-full of good one-liners, but when she tries to tell the story and advance the plot, it doesn't always work. As long as most of the characters are onstage and singing, all is well, but if one or two characters find themselves alone, there are deathly silences and pauses. This certainly isn't the fault of the actors, and not really the director either, although both need to work to tighten up these moments. Essentially the script is a series of amusing vignettes, and Kelso just hasn't managed to weave them together to create a really coherent and compelling narrative.  Then again, she probably wasn't trying to. TGATPCM premiered only a couple of years ago in Texas, and has been making the rounds of regional theatres ever since. A complex storyline isn't why audiences are flocking to this piece across the country - it's the title, pure and simple, and all that the title implies: the chance to enjoy some light holiday entertainment that is a subversive, irreverent, raunchy twist on traditional, wholesome, family-themed Christmas shows. Let's be frank - for me, and for most of the audience, the production's highlight was the first-act finale... "F*ck It, It's Christmas."  (That really is both the song's title, and its catchy refrain.) If that doesn't tell you what to expect, nothing will.  The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical runs through Saturday, December 19, with multiple matinees and rare Wednesday night performances, but some performances are already close to being sold out. Also take note that there are performances at 8 PM both Saturday Nov. 28 and Sunday, Nov. 29, i.e. the weekend right after Thanksgiving (Friday the 27th is also already sold out.) Visit http://www.trustus.org or call 803-254-9732 for ticket information.


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