Review: The Great American Trailer Park Musical (Hart House Theatre)

Hart House Theatre kicks off its new season with the Toronto premiere of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. This play and venue provide a healthy dose of smiles and a million laughs.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical was written by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso. It premiered in New York City in 2004. The play’s universal appeal has resulted in tours of the US, UK and Australasia.

The gloom of the weather was completely forgotten upon entering Hart House Theatre. The stage was colourful and inviting. The Southern Rock music of The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd added to the atmosphere. Set and costume designer Scott Penner successfully transforms “the cradle of Canadian Theatre” into a NASCAR infield.

The story revolves around the upcoming 20th wedding anniversary of Jeannie (Janice Hawke) and Norbert (James R. Woods). Jeannie is housebound, but Norbert hopes to cure her with the lure of Ice Capades tickets.

Armadillo Acres is the name of the trailer park that femme fatale “Pippi” (Kelly McCormack) turns upside down. Like Woods and Hawke, McCormack is highly-acclaimed, and fantastic.

All seven actors are terrific. The Dora nominated Justin Bott plays Duke. Duke has a gun that is about the size of Prince Edward Island. He has named his firearm with a name somewhat less regal than “Prince Edward”.

Betty (Saphire Demitro), Linoleum (Jennifer Morris) and Pickles (Sarite Harris) are the three women who tell this epic yarn. Morris and Harris are graduates of Toronto’s Randolph Academy, and Demitro is a recent grad from St. Clair College. It’s exhilarating to see such young talent onstage.

I was particularly impressed with Morris as Linoleum, or “Lin”. Early in the play she cools her inner thighs with a sweaty beer can. She’s a woman with talent and chutzpah!

The story is great and has more twists than a moonshiner’s route through North Carolina. The songs are also great, with witty and clever lyrics. They are delivered with passion and realism. It was so much fun getting to know the characters and easy to  “have their back”.

The costumes and set are simple yet highly effective. Armadillo Acres is transformed into an interstate, a strip club, and a white trash talk show set to name a few. Obviously a tonne of work and effort has gone into this production, and it pays huge dividends.

Being a musical, there are nuances of Grease, Rocky Horror and even the cult-classic movie Muriel’s Wedding. Everything “works” and this play is a success for a lot of the same reasons that a television show like Roseanne was a success.

We can relate to the residents of Armadillo Acres because they are human. Their problems are universal. Great writing and great talent makes it easy to empathize with the characters. It’s a smart play, and the intelligence of the audience is respected. People living in trailer parks are respected as well. There are no judgements or finger pointing, just great talent and good fun.

Some people behind us on the way out mentioned some minor technical aspects that might have been less than perfect. Maybe there were some glitches, but this is a play about fun. Even those people were smiling from ear to ear as they were nitpicking minor opening night flaws.

We agreed that this is the sort of play that John Waters might produce. It’s certainly not mainstream, but it is happy. There are bright, vibrant colors, joyful singing, dancing and great costumes. We found the play very life-affirming.

If there was anything we didn’t like about The Great American Trailer Park Musical, it was finding the theatre. Fortunately the students on campus were very helpful and friendly. We can’t wait to return.

An entirely gloomy day turned into an entirely enjoyable one, thanks to everyone involved with The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Make plans to see it!

Warning: contains coarse language, mature content and partial nudity


The Great American Trailer Park Musical
•Music and Lyrics by David Nehls, Book by Betsy Kelso
•Directed by Will O’Hare
•Runs from September 23 to October 8,2011 at Hart House Theatre
Tickets: $10-25
•Telephone: 416.978.8849.