THEATER ROAD TRIP
SONORA — Sometimes I wait for years to see a show. Example: I bought the cast album of a sweet and tuneful off-Broadway offering called “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” probably close to a decade ago. I loved it. And whenever I listened, I’d idly think that at some point I’d finally get to experience an actual production.
Which is why I’m at Sierra Repertory Theatre at a Saturday matinee in the cozy East Sonora Theatre, all pumped up to — finally! — see “Trailer Park” the way it was meant to be.
Yes, It’s a little odd that I’ve been such a stalwart theater fan in the central San Joaquin Valley for so long and yet this is my first time to visit SRT. It’s by far the closest professional theater company to me (about 110 miles from Fresno, up Highway 99 to Merced, then a slow climb almost due North into the beautiful foothills). And I’m a fairly adventurous theater traveler, having taken in scores of shows all over: San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, Denver, London, Berlin, Hong Kong, and, of course, my many pilgrimages to Broadway.
Yet with an Equity theater practically in my own backyard, I’ve never made the drive. Until now. It took “Trailer Park” to do the trick.
First I’ll fill you in on the production itself, which continues through Sunday, Aug. 20. And then I’ll tell you a little more about this distinctive company and how a mountain county with a population of about 57,000 manages to support a professional theater company.
Welcome to Armadillo Acres
The premise: In a chipper twist on a tried-and-true theme, we dive into the interconnected lives of a group of neighbors living on the same street. It’s just that in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” the amiable characters live in a place that doesn’t get much literary love: a trailer park. In this case it’s Armadillo Acres, a sunny if not exactly upscale slice of Florida. A merry trio of Greek chorus-style characters — among them a wife with a husband on death row, though she doesn’t seem too broken up about it — guide us through the main storyline.
The plot: Norbert (Andrew Berlin) is an affable toll collector going stir crazy in his marriage to Jeannie (Cat Yates), a well-meaning housewife who hasn’t stepped out of her trailer in years. When a stripper named Pippi (Ellie Wyman) on the run from an ex-boyfriend moves into the trailer park, sparks fly between her and Norbert. Will he cheat on his high-school sweetheart or resist temptation?
The production: It’s first-rate — a polished and hilarious joy from start to finish. Trey Compton’s whip-smart direction keeps the laughs barreling along, from the silly back stories of our three narrators (Erica Hanrahan-Ball as Betty, the ringleader; Kaitlyn Sage as Pickles, in the throes of a perpetual hysterical pregnancy; and Audra Qualley as Lin, who half-heartedly tries to keep the lights on so there isn’t enough juice to electrocute her condemned husband on death row) to the show’s surprisingly affecting love-triangle narrative arc.
The acting: A standout Yates, as the housebound Jeannie, has the most emotional yardage in front of her, and she runs it with a happy bulldozer effectiveness. The rest of the cast is impressive (I love Hanrahan-Ball’s turn as a daytime TV talk-show host) as well, though a talented Cody Gerszewski, as the crazy ex-boyfriend, can be a bit too broad and comically overwrought. (I love his energy in the song “Road Kill,” but his line readings can stray into shrill territory.) The greatest danger in terms of direction of the show is that it can easily descend into goofy caricature — making fun of its characters instead of laughing with them — and Gerszewski stretches the silliness a bit too far a few times.
The singing: In a word, superb. David Nehls’ music and lyrics sparkle. From the opening “This Side of the Tracks” to Wyman’s gorgeous “But He’s Mine,” the voices soar. (My only quibble: Berlin can’t quite dig down with as much bottom-scraping bass bluster as Shuler Hensley as Norbert on the original cast album, but those are pretty deep shoes to fill.) Overall, the vocals in the show were my biggest delight. “Flushed Down the Pipes,” with its brand-name lyrics (“Just like clothes from Wal-Mart, my love life’s falling apart”) is my favorite, with Yates’ anguish eloquently harmonized by her backup singers.
The creative team: Michael Kramer’s set design, which recreates three full-sized trailers on stage, is a treat, and so is the innovative way those trailers slide and open up to reveal more locales. Mike Sali’s lighting design is boisterously appropriate, Bethany Deal’s decidedly non-couture costumes are practically archaeological in replicating a socioeconomic stratum, and the uncredited sound design — which uses a recorded musical track — is expertly balanced, with the vocals only a few times too loud.
The experience of seeing it live: I’d long ago pieced together most of the storyline from listening to the cast album, but as almost always in such cases, there are twists you can’t figure out just from listening to the songs. I’m happy to say that I got a complete surprise at the end of the show in terms of a major plot revelation. Which made the show seem fresh, even to me.
The takeaway: With a twang in its heart and a silly spring to its step, this show is a delight.
Small town, impressive theater
Now a bit on Sierra Repertory Theatre itself.
The actors in “Trailer Park” are all professionals, and some of them belong to Actors Equity, the union that represents performers on Broadway. The six in this show are all from out of the area (from as far as New York), and while in town for the run are housed in the homes of local volunteers. Even when locals are in a show, they get paid.
That’s downright amazing considering the size of Sonora (population 5,000) and the surrounding mountain communities. The company was founded in 1980, originally staging shows in a 99-seat theater with a tin roof in East Sonora. That venue has grown into a permanent 199-seat facility. And the company really upped its game when in 1997 it became the resident theater company at the historic 265-seat Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park. Between the two theaters, the company presents eight mainstage productions a year.
After seeing “Trailer Park,” I got a chance a few days later to chat by phone with Becky Saunders, the company’s managing director, who along with Scott Viets, producing artistic director, is the brand-new management team at Sierra Repertory Theatre. They’re longtime SRT veterans who took over the reins from company co-founders Sara and Dennis Jones.
Saunders agrees that across the country, it’s rare to find professional theaters in a small town.
“We’re on a lean list,” she says. Strong support from the local community is a key factor.
“A lot of people here love theater,” she says.
Live theater is a tough business, whether it’s non-profit or not, and the challenges are always there. One is programming. A small-town theater company has to strike a balance between shows with strong name recognition and more offbeat fare. Let’s put it this way: SRT is following “Trailer Park,” with its more adult themes, with the more family-friendly “Man of La Mancha.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula to figuring out titles that will keep audiences buying tickets, but variety is essential. To keep relevant, theaters can’t just keep replaying decades-old musicals endlessly. “The demographic is changing slowly,” Saunders says. “Scott and I are trying to do name shows but newer ones.”
Another challenge: The newish Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto (the closest medium-sized city) is now bringing in national touring musicals, which has impacted Sierra Rep a little, Saunders says, in the sense that some Modesto-area theater patrons may be less likely now to make the drive to Sonora. But SRT is counting on the fact that it offers completely original shows rather than quickie “productions in a box” that often swing through medium-sized cities for one- or two-night stands.
I can attest to that original quality after seeing “Trailer Park.” The acting, directing and design all make up a highly competent professional production.
It’s my first show to see there, and I’m sure that some productions are more successful than others, but, still: I’m impressed. Very impressed. And that’s coming from a metro area with a population of a million-plus. I’m looking forward to heading back to Sonora soon, this time to see a show at the historic Fallon House Theatre.
“The Great American Trailer Park Musical” has almost a week left in its run: 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16; 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17; 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, at the East Sonora Theatre, 13891 Mono Way, Sonora. Tickets are $32-$37 adults, $30-$35 seniors.
“Man of La Mancha” opens Friday, Aug. 25, at the Fallon House Theatre, 11175 Washington, Columbia State Historic Park. Runs through Oct. 1. Tickets are $32-$37 adults, $30-$35 seniors.
Hotel: We stayed in the charming National Hotel in downtown Jamestown, about seven miles from Sonora. Opened in 1859, this historic hotel has been nicely renovated to 21st century standards without stripping the place of its nostalgic charm. (The rooms are small and cluttered with lots of period furnishings, an old-timey saloon downstairs, and there’s even a resident ghost, Flo, who is said to make an occasional appearance.) At $140 a night for a room with a private detached bathroom right across the hall, it’s cheaper than most of the iffier motels in the area.
Dining: To continue the old-time Jamestown feel, try for a seat at The Willow Steakhouse, just down the street from the National Hotel. The Gold Rush-era atmosphere, with its creaky wood floors and fussy wallpaper, is great (there’s a ghost on the premises here, too), and the food is pretty good.
Tourist attraction: Take a ride at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. On Saturdays and Sundays, a $15 ticket ($10 children) gets you a 40-minute train ride behind either a historic steam or diesel locomotive. Your guide will probably pepper you with information about the hundreds of movies and TV shows filmed on this line over the decades, including “High Noon” and “Back to the Future 3.” And if you have your phone, do a YouTube search for the opening credits of the old TV show “Petticoat Junction.” You’ll ride right under the water tower where the gals are romping in the water.
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