News Column

Merry Christmas from the 'Trailer Park'

November 15, 2013


Nov. 15--Traditional Christmas shows favor such settings as Dickensian London or the North Pole. But Stages celebrates the season in a more down-to-earth locale with the "The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical."

The seasonal sequel to "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" -- which was a hit with Stages' audiences in 2006 and 2011 -- makes its world premiere Friday at Stages.

Since its off-Broadway production in 2005, the original "Trailer Park" has been produced by more than 100 companies. When one of these intimate novelty shows takes off, can a Christmas sequel be far behind? The "Trailer Park" gang is following the path already taken by "Greater Tuna," "Nunsense," "Marvelous Wonderettes" and others.

"Trailer Park" composer and lyricist David Nehls and book writer Betsy Kelso say they've been getting requests for a Christmas sequel for several years and were resistant to the idea -- until Nehls mentioned the prospect to Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin last year, while the two were collaborating on "Panto Mother Goose." McLaughlin loved the notion, and Nehls loved the prospect of premiering the show at Stages.

"Betsy and I had seen the original 'Trailer Park' musical at Stages," Nehls says. "We loved the company, the size of the theater, the staff. So we felt good about launching the new show with a great team we knew would really get it."

The new work retains the original's setting at Armadillo Acres ("North Florida's premiere mobile-living community"), as well as Pickles, Lin and Betty, the trio of park ladies who form a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. But the other characters are new. Nehls and Kelso thought they'd done all they could with the original's love triangle of tollbooth attendant Norbert, his agoraphobic wife, Jeannie, and home-wrecking stripper Pippi.

The new show centers on Darlene, whom Nehls describes as "a horrible person, the Scrooge of the trailer park." The show depicts the miraculous transformation she undergoes through the marvel of accidental electric shock and resultant amnesia.

"It has the same tone and spirit as the original," Kelso says, "along with lots of references to Christmas. We've tried to inject a little of that Christmas wonderment, even as we try to keep things grounded."

Kelso and Nehls were both performing in New York when they met in 1996 while on a European tour of "The Rocky Horror Show." Shortly after, Nehls mentioned his idea of a show set in a trailer park.

"Originally it was going to be more a cabaret," Kelso says. "I had a background in sketch and improv comedy. When it began to take shape as a musical, he wanted me to write the book. Though I liked the idea, I wasn't sure I could do it, not having written a book for a musical before. But David is a very can-do guy."

Though the "Trailer Park" shows may be seen as mining low-comedy laughs from outrageously tacky behavior, Nehls says the shows were inspired by affection.

"I grew up in southwest Pennsylvania, and I was a newspaper boy well into my teens," Nehls says. "I used to deliver to a trailer park, and they were the most awesome people -- the kind that, when it snowed, they'd invite me in for hot chocolate. I delivered to well-to-do homes, too -- but it was the people in the trailer park who'd give me a gift on my birthday. They were nice, down-to-earth people -- sassy and foul-mouthed but also filled with kindness and wisdom. So we wanted to show there's something beneath the surface."

Kelso echoes the sentiment that taking pot shots at the characters is not the point.

"I've always enjoyed broad comedy, and I'll laugh at anything outrageous," Kelso says. "But we also wanted to get some real heart into the original show, as well as this sequel. We never went in just to make fun of people. Deep down, we don't see ourselves as all that different. That's why I'm glad the first show has done so well in Southern cities and small towns. We're hoping all the theaters that have had successful runs with the first show will want to do the sequel."


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