It’s been several years since the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre put on The Great American Trailer Park Musical, and though the faces and venue may have changed, the delightfully tacky ladies (and a gentleman) of Armadillo Acres are back to bring you some holiday cheer. Or something sort of like it that comes in a can and is labeled “holiday cheer product.”
The Empire Theatre Company’s newest production, The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, is exactly what this over-shopped, over-hyped, over-priced holiday season needs. And this show is all about holiday cheer – again, sort of. The leader of the trailer park community, Betty (Abby Schoenborn) is all atwitter because Better Mobile Homes and Gardens magazine is coming to Armadillo Acres to check the place out and see if their Christmas spirit is enough to win them a contest with a $10,000 prize for being the most festive. Betty’s Christmas comrades, death row widow Linoleum (Amy Driscoll) and single mother Pickles (Leah Bieberdorf), are ready to spruce things up and quickly enlist the decorating assistance of local handyman/stigmata hand model Rufus (Jared Kinney) to make their trailer park sparkle brighter -and tackier – than any other. But their plans may just be ruined by park Scrooge Darlene (Misty Koop) and her sleazy “breast-aurant”-owning boyfriend Jackson (CJ Leigh). Can this trio of trailer park princesses overcome their obstacles to come out on top and bring back some Christmas spirit to poor Darlene, or will everyone be haunted by ghosts of their tragic Christmases past?
In a way, it doesn’t really matter. As they say in one of the show’s funny, frisky songs: fuck it, it’s Christmas! The “story” of the show is pretty bare bones, and not overly interesting. It’s a tenuously-connected series of events that take Darlene from Christmas-hater to Christmas-lover, back to Christmas-hater, and then back again to Christmas-lover. The story, what there is of it, mainly exists to allow for some rowdy and ribald singing, caustic and funny one-liners, and hilarious sight gags. And on these fronts, the show definitely doesn’t disappoint.
The actors do a great job of bringing to life this motley crew of good-hearted trailer trash, and they are funny as hell to watch, but it’s sort of like an entire show centered around Jack and Karen from Will & Grace: you get the laughs in abundance, but you keep waiting for there to be a point, some emotional resonance, to give the humor some depth. When this show is trying to give you that depth is when it’s at its weakest. The “will they or won’t they” romance of Rufus and Darlene is pretty predictable, with twists that are far too obvious to really be called twists, and the first act seems strangely divorced from the second, as though the writers got to intermission and said, “Well, that wasn’t working, let’s try something else” and just went in a new direction.
But like most great guilty pleasures, the holes in the story and the awkward transitions aren’t what make it an actual pleasure – it’s seeing past them and enjoying 6 fantastic performances by some very talented local actors. You can’t help but love Kinney as the grinning and dopey Rufus Jeter and you really root for him and Darlene, even when she’s mean and spiteful and calling everyone “dumber than a bag of dicks.” Schoenborn’s Betty is the primary narrator and amps it up, mugging and posing for the audience as we take our trashy Christmas tour. Leigh’s Jackson is as creepy and off-putting as you would expect a man who makes women wear fake pancakes on their breasts to be; it’s a character he’s done well, and done before (audience members who took in GGFCT’s Dearly Departed will probably recognize more than a little bit of the flatulent Reverend in Mr. Boudreaux). Driscoll’s Linoleum has some great moments, especially when Darlene plans an unusual sendoff for Lin’s dead husband’s ashes. And Bieberdorf’s Pickles, a naive single mom who still believes in Santa, is a particular delight, wide-eyed and dead-panning her hilarious dialogue. When Darlene breaks the news that there isn’t a Santa, her reaction…well…I almost peed a little.
Despite my peevish complaints about the story, I had a great time at the show. I left the chaos of Black Friday shopping behind and attended the opening night performance. Things were tight and ready to go thanks to co-directors Chris Berg and Casey Paradies, and my only other real complaints were technical in nature. As I noted, this show lives and dies on one-line zingers and funny references; some of these got lost in a host of mic problems. Sometimes they were too low, or positioned in places where they were getting bumped and prodded. The pit, lead by music director David Henrickson, was also a tad aggressive; I was sitting towards the back and I often had trouble making out lines over the volume of the band. The music itself was excellent, but the volume needed to be pulled back to keep the focus where it belonged: on the stage.
Tonight I will be attending the closing performance of the show, and I’m excited to once again immerse myself in the witty world of Armadillo Acres. A Christmas Carol, it’s definitely not, but it’s a bawdy little bon bon with a nice mix of sweet and sour. So if you don’t have plans to night, grab your most festive holiday sweater because “Baby Jesus needs plugged in” at Armadillo Acres, and you don’t want to miss it!
Showtime is at 7:30 pm, and tonight (December 6) is the last night. It was a short run and I probably could have gotten this review done sooner…but I didn’t. Talk to my boss and have me fired….oh wait. But if you have the chance to check this out before it’s gone, definitely do so!
Tags: Abby Schoenborn, Amy Driscoll, Casey Paradies, Chris Berg, CJ Leigh, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater Company, Empire Theatre Company, Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jared Kinney, Leah Bieberdorf, Miss Jaye, Misty Koop, World of Champagne