I’ll admit I avoided “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” until now. Despite my addiction to films I never even saw the 1982 movie version with Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. To me, the exploitation of women as sex workers is something less than charming or comical.
But I was wrong. This rollicking, good-time show is simply a rather innocuous fairy tale about commercial sex. This new Circle Theatre production is pure fun, like a crowd-pleasing B-movie. This veritable 3-ring circus has bawdy, colorful characters and a fast-paced plot.
With such a title you probably don’t need to be warned that “The Best Little Whorehouse” is not something to take the children to. There are simulated sex acts, adult situations, and lots of strong language. But all of the sinners have hearts of gold and the mood is never really vulgar or disturbing.
The lively cast is uniformly strong, with excellent voices, from soloists to back-up singers. Many of these energetic performers play multiple roles.
Director and choreographer Kevin Bellie wears both hats comfortably. The rip-roaring dance numbers are especially fun.
This 1978 Broadway musical was inspired by a factual article in Playboy magazine. The mostly true story is about a brothel called the Chicken Ranch that flourished just outside LaGrange, Texas from 1844 to 1973. Names have been changed to protect the guilty but the script sticks close to the facts, even including many of the actual bordello’s house rules. The customers, for instance, are never called “johns” or “tricks” but “guests.” For generations the ranch served politicians, athletes, and VIP’s of all sorts.
The establishment became known as the Chicken Ranch because during the Depression the girls accepted poultry as payment for services rendered. The business was closed down in the 1970s following a week-long expose by a publicity hungry Houston television personality.
Anita Hoffman is wonderfully engaging as the red-haired mistress of the house, Miss Mona. Hoffman has great range. She’s a mother figure who runs her establishment with firm affection, tolerating no nonsense. Miss Mona’s full of humor, compassion, and sensitivity toward her staff, providing them with relative stability and safety, and giving them self-esteem and confidence. Her girls in turn honor Mona with great respect. She is also on good terms with the local look-the-other-way sheriff who has managed to keep the Chicken Ranch out of trouble in exchange for a favor or two.
Hoffman is especially good singing the plaintive ballad “The Bus From Amarillo.”
Carol Hall’s country-flavored score is strong, although several numbers seem rather extraneous.
Noah Sullivan plays easy-going but conflicted Sheriff Ed Earl. He’s got a short temper, a salty vocabulary, and a soft spot in his heart for Miss Mona.
The sheriff keeps a watchful guard over Miss Mona’s brothel, the town’s worst-kept secret, yet he fails to pay full attention to the building Moral Majority protest being led by a crusading buffoon in a white pompadour, Melvin P. Thorpe (Michael A. Gravame). This holier-than-thou “Watch Dog” TV personality who gets the town in an uproar is based on a real Houston newsman.
Toni Lynice Fountain, playing Jewel, the ranch housekeeper, is a powerhouse singer who does a sultry solo, “24-Hours of Lovin’.”
Two new girls arrive at the Chicken Ranch in the opening scene. Sydney Genco plays a brassy, seasoned streetwalker looking for relief from an abusive pimp. It’s heart-wrenching to hear her phone her young son. Sheana Toby is a shy country girl with a painful secret who is taking her first job as a sex worker. Unfortunately these two fascinating characters are virtually dropped once the bigger plot about the circus-like anti-prostitution crusade kicks in.
There is something for everyone in this show: if the hookers don’t do it for you, there’s a locker room scene with a Texas football team preparing to visit the Chicken Ranch as their reward for winning a big game. The lusty guys dancing about in their tighty-whities look like they might be appearing in something called “7 Dudes For 7 Brothers.”
Kirk Swenk stands out in the role of the dancing Governor of Texas.
A cafe waitress who always wanted to be less plain and respectable is nicely played by Jennifer Bludgen
Miss Mona’s girls are a strong ensemble, notably during the fairly well-known “Hard Candy Christmas” number.
You might think costume changes would be minimal in a musical about a house of ill repute but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Costume designer Jesus Perez really outdid himself with a nonstop fashion parade of saucy attire created especially for this production.
Bob Knuth’s scenic design incorporates an on-stage gazebo type band-shell for the musicians. They are Josh Walker, Michael Jurewicz, Terri Worman, Bent Moore, Chris Wysoglad, and Dolan McMillan. Walker is also musical director.
Beth Scheible is the stage manager.
At times the script by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson lacks imagination. The politicians and Moral Majority folks are drawn in broad, cartoonish stokes. But the energy and pace never flags in this Circle Theatre production. It’s really a raucous good time.