The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Opera House Theatre Company
Thalian Hall Main Stage
2/25-27, 8 p.m.; Sun. 3pm
Opera house theatre company’s latest production, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” is a fun show. Its campy, zany, and tinge-of-naughty humor comes with great songs and lots of dancing.
Based on the true story of a long-operating and much-loved brothel in La Grange, Texas, “The Best Little Whorehouse” is set in the fictional location of Gilbert, a very typical small town. The local residents include the part-time mayor and used car salesman (Dan Morris), local insurance agent and booster C. J. Scruggs (Anthony Lawson), the waitress at the diner (Cecily Anne Boyd) and Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, an honest graft, used to getting his way come hell or high water (John “Perk” Perkinson). The Chicken Ranch, as the brothel is affectionately known due to a flexible payment scheme adopted during the Depression, is run by Miss Mona (Michelle Braxton) and her housekeeper/general factotum, Jewell (Joy Ducree Gregory). This “Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place” has operated for over 100 years, serving the local population (including elected officials) with a team of ladies and a very strict set of rules. Everything has run smoothly for as long as anyone can remember until Melvin P. Thorpe (Tony Rivenbark), a TV watchdog reporter, looks to make a name for himself and breaks the story: “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It!” Things come to a head during the victory party for The Aggies of Texas A&M following the football championship.
Many people are familiar with the movie adaptation of the play and will remember Dolly Parton’s performance as Miss Mona. Michelle Braxton’s interpretation of the role is not Dolly Parton, but it is a very real creation of a woman who has worked herself up from nothing. She has strength, poise, class and leads not only a group of surprising women, but carries the show with a wonderful voice.
Speaking of voices, the principal performers are incredible. On the night I was in the audience, Joy Ducree Gregory as Jewell had people standing up to applaud her during the show. Tony Rivenbark’s Melvin P. Thorpe is too delightful for words. He is completely over the top. Coupled with his backup troupe, he almost steals the show. But that award must go to The Aggies. To agree with director Ray Kennedy, “What is not to love about clogging football-player cowboys?” Their big number brought the house down thanks to saucy choreography that combined elements of strip teases, football practices and square dances—it was positively inspired. In spite of their bragging, their counterparts, the Ladies of the Chicken Ranch, bring them down a notch when confronted by the beauties of the flesh.
Kennedy has assembled a very talented group of dancers and singers. This ensemble has fun and so does the audience, singing along with Carol Hall’s score. Hall has a real gift for catchy storytelling lyrics, with melodies that smack of the old west. Lorene Walsh and her onstage band make parts of the show feel like any ol’ night at a country and western bar. The excitement of live music as part of the theatre experience adds an extra garnish of specialty that can’t be replaced by a recording.
Like many shows dependent upon large casts and big production numbers, the job of costuming all the bodies repeatedly as they change for each scene is underappreciated at best. Juli Harvey meets this challenge and includes some wonderful sight gags for the observant audience member. (Was that really a pair of bloomers on an Aggie?)
Though this is essentially a musical, the scenes with Dan Morris as the mayor and Anthony Lawson as C.J. Scruggs are the welcome lulls of reflection to offset the highs of the big dance numbers. These two have an ease with each other on stage that is captivating in its simplicity and realism.
John “Perk” Perkinson portrays Sherriff Ed Earl Dodd as a tragic figure, a man whose time of greatness has passed. When the Ladies of the Chicken Ranch line up to say goodbye, he shakes each of their hands like the pitcher of the losing team in the world series.
Melvin P. Thorpe triumphs and closes The Chicken Ranch. Not unlike Sidney Biddle (the Mayflower Madam), the real life Miss Mona (Edna Milton) insisted upon decorum, hygiene, preventive medical care for her ladies and gave generously to local philanthropic causes. The illegal and immoral activities of The Chicken Ranch are stopped, but did its operation or its closing cause more harm? As a total script, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” has it all: great music, shimmies and shakes, comedy, a little bit of skin and deeper moments of reflection on human motivations. This production by Opera House hits the right notes, allowing the audience to sympathize with the characters and the hand each of them has been dealt by life—what a great way to tell their stories!
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author of “The Promise of Peanuts. A real-life fairy tale about a man, a village, and the promise that bound them together.” All profits go to Full Belly Project.