Erica Livingston is a long way from home. Sort of. She grew up in the North Carolina town of Ramseur (population 1,589), but for most of the past decade she’s hung her hat in New York City—the right home base for an up-and-coming actress. However, the roles Livingston lands reflect not the urbanized woman she’s become, but the Southern roots from which she pulls inspiration.
“Your niche is always what you’re good at,” she tells Xpress. She also admits that when it comes to the characters in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, “I know these people. I grew up with these people.”
As the saying goes, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Livingston plays lead character Jeannie in that off-Broadway show, now on tour. The story is a sketch-comedy-based romp set in a north Florida trailer park where the already adverse lives of tollbooth attendant Norbert and his agoraphobic wife Jeannie are further complicated by the arrival of a stripper on the run from her violent, magic-marker-sniffing boyfriend.
It could be argued that “white trash” stereotypes have gone from the stuff of closet skeletons to the larger-than-life themes of contemporary entertainment. The Dukes of Hazzard movie, the entire career of Larry the Cable Guy and television shows My Name is Earl and Trailer Park Boys make heroes (as well as caricatures) of the subculture. Billy Bob Thornton’s 2001 dark comedy, Daddy and Them, sought (and succeeded) to give soul to such personalities; musical comedy 3 Redneck Tenors spoofed operatic trios with its mulleted cast.
Perhaps the theater-going public has jumped on the bandwagon of these shows because they’re more relatable than, say, The Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables. Maybe this is simply the newest direction of camp, fueled by kitschy scores like the one from The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Seriously, who isn’t going to chuckle at lines like, “Just like clothes from Wal-Mart, my love life’s falling apart” and “Make like a nail (and press on),” for instance?
But Livingston isn’t taking the down-and-out theme as permission to portray an oppressed character. “I take a bit of a different spin on it,” she says of Jeannie, who developed her fear of public places after her son was abducted. The actress notes that the kidnapping was “very comical”—not the situation of an Amber alert.
“[Jeannie] would be an ingénue character,” Livingston continues. “I try to add a lot of levels to her so she’s not as victimized as she could be. I try to play her as a strong character with bad luck.”
In fact, the background for Trailer Park—Jeannie’s too-young pregnancy, the wandering eye of her husband and the man-stealing antics of Pippi the stripper—are all just a set up for what New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger called, “The musical comedy equivalent of cheese fries.”
Told in the classic style of a Greek tragedy, complete with a chorus (in this case made up of trailer-park residents Betty, Lin—short for Linoleum—and Pickles), the show boasts a set worthy of an art gallery and a hair-raising array of perms. The script is by sketch comedian Betsy Kelso, and has “more of a Saturday Night Live feel,” offers Livingston.
“This is not traditional musical theater by any means,” the actress adds. “It’s not Oklahoma.”
As for bringing an off-Broadway show to her home state, Livingston calls the opportunity “terrific.”
“I’ve always been proud of coming from North Carolina,” she explains. “There’s so much culture available. I grew up doing community theater and that’s how I even thought of going into [professional acting].”
Now, Livingston is able to give something back—even if it does happen to be in the form of a single-wide and a set of press-on nails.
who: The Great American Trailer Park Musical
what: Off-Broadway musical comedy
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Thursday, March 13, through Sunday, March 16. 8 p.m. nightly; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. ($25-$35. Info: 257-4512)