PROVO — Somewhere west of Steel Magnolia’s Louisiana, and south of Oklahoma! is a small Texas trailer park, where five strong women struggle to make a living and make sense of their love lives, accompanied by upbeat country music. Such is the setting of Single Wide, a new musical by George Nelson, Maclain Nelson, and Jordan Kamalu, premiering at Brigham Young University under the direction of Megan Sanborn Jones.
It’s a play that might have a real chance to go someplace bigger. Single Wide (a term for small-sized manufactured homes) grew out of a collaborations between a BYU theater professor and a number of talented students. The play received a professional audition and some prestigious awards at the 2015 New York Musical Theater Festival. Back home again in Utah it went through polishing rewrites and expansion. The result? A musical with genuine Broadway potential.
At the heart of the story is Katy (played by Alyssa Aramaki Hazen), a practical single mother working at an auto parts store to keep a roof over her mother Amanda (played by Amanda Crabb) and her son Sam (played by Luke Belnap). Katy hasn’t let her trials destroy her hopes of a better life and is burning the candle at both ends taking on-line classes to achieve her dream. Other residents of the dreary park are two sisters, Serena (played by Jessica Jensen) and Jaz (played by Jasmyn Piepgrass), waitresses hiding from Serena’s abusive husband. There’s also Katy’s best friend Flossie (played by Meg Flinders), a red-headed knockout convinced she can catch a good man because of her good looks—inevitably cycling through loser after violent loser. Into this tiny community wanders Guy (played by Alex Diaz), a mysterious, reclusive young man with hand-to-hand fighting skills and a protective streak that makes him irresistible to the needy hearts around him. Let the competition begin.
Turn off your cliché alert. The focus of the play is not on the characters’ past problems but on their current, cheerfully flawed behavior. What could be stereotype becomes shorthand for the troubles that have landed them in their present circumstances. It is obvious that the playwrights have written with empathy rather than contempt for their “trailer trash” protagonists.
The production team is in agreement with the creators’ impulse to keep things genuine. The set of Single Wide (designed by Travis Coyne) is realistic, consisting of portions of four full-sized trailers grouped around a communal picnic table under a cloud-mottled sky. Each of the homes have individual touches that express the personality of the inhabitants. A string of red chili peppers festooning the railing on the sister’s tiny porch, gallon cans of flowers in front of romantic Flossie’s place, the native soil being too acidic to grow anything. The only stage concession is that the walls of two the trailers open up smoothly to let the audience peer right into Katy’s and Flossie’s personal lives. This design means that the location of the action changes with cinematic ease.
The costumes (designed by Heather Everett) are equally naturalistic, consisting of t-shirts and sleeveless blouses, short shorts and an even shorter skirt on a slinky dress. This is a place of expressive “tats” and beer drunk straight from the bottle, a place made comfortable by people who feel at home even if they hope this is a temporary place. (Being staged at BYU though, the slightly bared midriff that shows up in the production photos in the program has been modestly covered).
The actors take full advantage of the realistic setting. Crabb successfully plays the role of sympathetic and supportive matriarch without being overly sweet, and she provides a lot of humor in her work-from-home job taking calls for a pet store. Flinders is absolutely believable as the vulnerable, smoking-hot vamp. Twelve-year-old Belnap nearly steals the show; he is an actor skilled way beyond his years. Diaz is suitably attractive in the part of a man not quite sure how to respond to the rising tension he causes. Jensen and Swindall add energy to the scene any time they are on stage. And Tyler Fox deserves extra credit for portraying three very different contenders for Flossie’s attention.
Best of all, Hazen plays Katy with true emotional connection to all the people around her. She is unfazed by love-’em-or-hate-’em lyrics such as feeling like “a plate of leftovers pushed to the back of the fridge” or “what would it cost for my life to defrost.” Hazen manages the transition from focused single to love lorn and hoping skillfully in the truncated time allotted by musical theater.
The production is not flawless. There are small problems: the stage combat looks fake, the dance choreography sometimes lapses into the overly perky Young Ambassador style. At times Kamalu’s music, though excellently performed by a live band, overpowers the singers. Hazen needs to be careful not to let emotion overwhelm her lovely voice, turning it unpleasantly nasal. Diaz should also get past anxiety in his performance. He is a better singer than he perhaps believes, as right now he is not as strong in solos as he is in ensemble.
What makes the show a winner is the underlying sense of non-judgmental acceptance of every character. This isn’t a “This is Me” style celebration of idiosyncrasies, but rather a feeling that each person is valuable even if their imperfections cause grief. The characters in Single Wide are treasures, not trash, just the way they are. And even if they reside in mobile homes that are decidedly immobile, they are determined to keep on trying to move up. The characters may not conform to the BYU Honor Code, but they embody the faith, hope, and charity that is at the core of the BYU values. In a world full of divisiveness there is a need for art that that cheers for connection.
Likewise, Single Wide is a musical that is not only well worth seeing now, but, given a chance, could very likely succeed on a larger stage. Here’s hoping for its eventual triumphant return to New York City.
Donate to Utah Theatre Bloggers Association today and help support theatre criticism in Utah. Our staff work hard to be an independent voice in our arts community. Currently, our goal is to pay our reviewers and editors. UTBA is a non-profit organization, and your donation is fully tax deductible.