Known as the world’s oldest profession, prostitution has found itself at the forefront of a number of plots throughout entertainment—so much so, over the years an archetype character for the role emerged. We have all seen the hooker with a heart of gold, from the street-walking Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” to the documentary series “Cathouse” showing the real goings-on in a legal Las Vegas brothel. Society is so fascinated by debauchery behind the closed doors of others. It’s clear America has some real hangups on the subject of “sex,” but instead of taking an honest look on the matter we—as we do with most things—turned it into a joke. Thus is how we have ended up with the subgenre of the “sex comedy”—a wacky if not crude kind of farce where the moral conundrum of getting laid is the overall point.
The latest staging of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” offered from Thalian Association, is directed by Mark Deese. The musical’s plot follows the day-to-day business of the famed Chicken Ranch. The whorehouse is owned by the Madam Mona Stangley (Denise S. Bass), a matrilineal momma bear who fearlessly defends her “girls.” Though, when the closed-minded conservative televangelist Melvin P. Thrope (Mike Thompson) sets his sights to close down the cesspool of sin, Mona will need the help of her former lover Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (J.R. Rodriquez) to try and save the historical hot spot of Gilbert, TX.
The musical is based on the true story of the real Chicken Ranch brothel, which opened in La Grange, TX in 1844 and operated until 1973. Even with its salacious storyline and real-world connections, the script is rather paint-by-numbers. With jokes so simple, their setups are delivered as if they had been placed on a batting tee for the actors to easily hit them out into the audience. Sure, audiences will laugh but it has more to do with how comfortable they are with recycled humor and less with how it’s being presented on stage.
The production never finds a suitable pace to run, from rushing through its first act to painfully dragging out the second. More so, it left me asking: Why can’t I see a single show at Thalian Hall that doesn’t have microphone issues? I don’t know if it’s a budget issue or an equipment issue, but it needs to be worked out. The mic situation was atrocious during the show I attended; mics would not come on when actors would speak or they would drop in the middle of songs. It leads to many missed moments. Now, I’m not blaming “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” for this hiccup; in fact, they overcame it as best they could. Still, shouldn’t this be an issue figured out and resolved during mic checks? Tech week? Any time before the show is in front of an audience?
Now, what Thalian Association could have controlled is bringing this seedy world to life in a more interesting way. The set doesn’t present much of anything that’s eye-catching—it is bland, including lighting, and leaves viewers wanting more. Upon entry, the audience’s eyes will be drawn to three working ceiling falls hanging above the set. Though a neat-looking detail, they are a tease to what could have been impressive. Instead, when the lights rise, the visuals on display are less than engaging. No real colors pop and while the set fills the stage, there just isn’t much to look at within it. The Chicken Ranch lacks character, so it also loses any sense of history. With the action being about saving the ranch, an opportunity is missed in showing off the women’s past connections and what they are fighting for exactly.
That’s not to say everything falls flat; the Melvin P. Thrope Watchdogs rig drops in from above the stage and proves itself a cool sight. Surrounded by flashing lights and massively cut into the shape of Texas, it teases at what could have been.
Jen Iapalucci’s costume design serves the production well as usual. She has dressed the ladies of the night in a sultry yet elegant manner. It clearly speaks to the classy way the ladies of Chicken Ranch carry themselves. Iapalucci’s work on the Melvin P. Thrope Watchdogs is truly inspired. Their matching baby blue cowboy and cowgirl outfits bring to mind the Hee-Haw by way of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
The production’s choreography by Beth Swindell also leaves something to be desired. Most of the time it reads chaotic and spastic; the Aggies number comes to mind as a clear example. As well, the cast makes up a mixed bag—some pulling the show across the finish line and others just dragging it down. Amy Carter, Jonathan Wallin and Sarah Holcomb absolutely shine on stage in their supporting roles.
Carter is hilarious as Shy, one of the newer girls to the house. She kills it with her facial expressions and creates a lot of subtle laughs all on her own.
When Wallin played the coach in Thalian Association’s last show, “Damn Yankees,” and had me rolling in the aisles. Here, as the scandal-ridden Senator, he had my side splitting. His fluster rage is gold.
Holcomb’s vocals wows yet again in “Twenty Four Hours of Lovin.” She serves as something of a den mother to Mona’s pack leader.
The “Doatsy Mae” will stun audiences with Shannon Profita’s enchanting voice. Profita plays a small-town waitress in Gilbert but manages to bring emotional depth.
Putting the “South” in a corrupt Southern sheriff is J.R. Rodriquez as Ed Earl Dodd. Rodriquez does a solid job embodying a man with his better days past him; now, he just wants to coast the rest of the way in. He shapes Dodd as less a confident lawman and more a foil to every situation—simply looking for the path of least resistance and more often than not being the source of his own chagrin. It’s good work that could come off as a rather one-note tough guy, but Rodriguez gives it an oddball flavor.
That being said, Rodriguez and his lady costar Bass lack chemistry. If these two are meant to be past lovers, it’s easy to see why things didn’t work out between them. Their intimate moments are distant, even when they’re in each other’s arms.
Unfortunately, Bass’ Ms. Mona comes across rather disinterested, which makes for a boring madame. She rushes through some moments, in turn meaning missed dialogue and comedic beats. Her singing makes up for it mostly, but doesn’t save the lackluster lead.
While the production resembles a train wobbling on the tracks at times, the sold-out house certainly enjoyed themselves regardless. It’s summertime, a time for laughs and relaxation, a time to sit back, turn off the brain, and enjoy wacky hijinks; “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” will do just that for many.
Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
May 17-26, Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. • Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $16-$32 • thalianhall.org
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