'Park' yourself at Actor's Theatre for zany laughs

Thirty-five years ago, I lived in a trailer park at the edge of a classy city I won't name for fear of shaming it. (Its initials are "Chapel Hill.")

The family next door had a indeterminate number of kids and hounds. The dogs burst into the common area at 6 a.m., crawled through the broken subfloor of my trailer and ran around howling underneath my bedroom. The dad once summoned his children to a meal by firing a pistol. and bellowing, "Y'all hear that? C'mon inside now!"

So to me, "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" plays like a documentary.

Not that a stripper fleeing an abusive boyfriend ever settled there and took up with the lonely husband of a woman who'd become agoraphobic 20 years before, when her baby was kidnapped. (As far as I know.)

But the cheerfully crass characters in Betsy Kelso's script come just close enough to reality to make us smile with recognition.

Those wafer-thin characters go along with the rudimentary plot and David Nehls' simple, jaunty tunes, most of which are affectionate parodies of country music. Next to this show, last year's "Evil Dead: The Musical" seems as complex and layered as "Sweeney Todd."

But the whole point is to get you out of the summer heat and into a blithely brainless state, and director Dennis Delamar and his seven-person cast definitely do that at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte.

Three women function mostly as wry narrators. Park manager Betty (Taffy Allen) is the voice of patience and experience; Lynn (Carmen Schultz), which is short for Linoleum, waits for the day her no-good husband will go to his final reward on Death Row; Pickles (Cassandra Howley Wood) is a victim of many hysterical pregnancies and one real one that induces hysteria in the audience.

Norbert and homebound Jeannie (Matthew Corbett and Lisa Smith Bradley) live in peaceful dullness, until exotic dancer Pippi (Heather Hamby) strips away Norbert's complacence. Angst roils the park, until nutcake Duke (Ryan Stamey) shows up to reclaim his former love.

The show slows down on the few occasions when Kelso and Nehls aim for deeper emotions or try to elicit our sympathy with sentimental ballads. Those stop the forward motion, and forward motion is what keeps this show vital. (The authors also repeat jokes, a small sin here.)

Delamar wisely drew double-wide performances from a strong cast. How else could anybody deliver these lyrics: "Just like clothes from Wal-Mart/ My life is falling apart/ And it cuts like a Ginsu/ That's lodged in my heart"?

Yet the humor's not mean-spirited. We're not there to look down on the Floridians living in Armadillo Acres, but to see the craziest elements of ourselves in them and be glad those elements don't get a public airing very often.

You know, I finally went next door to meet that neighbor over a beer. Would you be surprised to hear we had a lot in common, after all?

Well, we didn't, because he was crazy as a box of starved rats. But he was good company in a weird way, and "Trailer Park Musical" showed me again how that could be true.

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