Thalian has a whorehouse in it, thanks to Thalian Association’s last show of the season, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” opening this week. It’s a romp of a good time most folks will remember from the Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds’ 1982 flick. Before those two sex symbols took on the story, the show was a 1978 musical, with book by Texas author Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, and music and lyrics by Carol Hall. The story was based on a real brothel, Chicken Ranch, in La Grange, Texas.
In the fictional town of Gilbert, the ranch has been in operation for more than a century, and remains that way thanks to the show’s main players, Mona Stangley (Denise Bass) and Sheriff Ed Earl (J.R. Rodriguez). However, the two find themselves in hot water after a reporter starts poking around to unveil illegal activity. Thirteen musical numbers—overseen by Amanda Hunter—and 35 actors will make it come to life, in all its laughter and rambunctious glory.
“The choreography is sexy, fun and empowering,” according to director Mark Deese, who’s overseeing the show for the first time. He’s been working with choreographer Beth Swindell on finessing all the country/Western moves. “There is a quirky number with the Angelettes that is ridiculous, and an incredibly energetic clogging style dance for the football players,” Deese teases.
We interviewed Mark Deese, Denise Bass and J.R. Rodriguez about the show and character arcs driving the story.
encore (e): How are you approaching “Whorehouse”—any tweaks or changes, or keeping it straight to script?
Mark Deese (MD): There are certain things that are going to be very familiar to people who have seen the show before. Usually, there is a huge 50-60 person cast, but we are giving multiple roles to many of our cast members. This has added a little bit of comedy to a certain degree because the minor disguises of a couple of actors are pretty comical due to wigs and costuming.
In addition, the set [done by Lance Howell] is a bit different than other versions. Traditionally a front porch is incorporated, but I wanted to give the house the look of the interior of a dollhouse where we could see in each room, upstairs and downstairs. The bandleader and band also are on stage because we wanted the crowd to think of them as supporting cast. You will see the cast interact with them from time to time.
Visual and sound effects are being incorporated to add interest to a couple of scenes, but that is all I can say without giving away too much.
e: What is your fave number and why?
MD: “No Lies” because it gives two of our powerful female characters (Mona and Jewel) the opportunity to share their friendship with the audience. It is a song that allows each to have solo moments, but then they get to share harmonies and the song with the other girls in the house. It is fun and has great energy.
e: Walk me through a number from beginning to end…
MD: Oh, boy! This is tough…
In an early scene, two young ladies are looking for work at the Chicken Ranch and Miss Mona has a very interesting interview process and asks questions that you would not hear in a regular 9-5 job. Mona’s Girls come down to sing and dance to explain the rules of the house to the new girls. It certainly gets their attention!
e: What are misconceptions about the themes of the show you hope to overcome?
MD: I think it is not 100 percent my place as a man to answer to all of the misogyny women go through regularly, but what I will say is each female character in the show is in charge. They make the rules and the men are to follow them.
Also, the male characters need strong women and depend on them greatly, and I am not talking about while they are in the whorehouse. I think when we think of prostitution, it has a dark history where men usually have the control and that is a tricky aspect to overcome.
J.R. Rodriguez (JRR): I also think, unfortunately, some folks will see this and think only about the title or the language (and there is hard language). For me, that’s an absolute shame. There’s a wonderful story there about the human spirit that will get missed by some because they can’t open their minds and just enjoy the experience. The truth is, the story is full of questioning norms, taking chances on change, exploration, fun, laughter, sadness, happiness, and most importantly, love. And if anytime in our history we needed love, it’s hard to find a better time than now.
e: Can any audience member connect with this show, even if it challenges their values?
MD: It is OK not to be comfortable with the subject matter of a show. I am not comfortable with racism, but I would see “The Color Purple” in a heartbeat. I will say this show is not for kids!
e: Tell me about some of the character arcs and how it drives the show.
MD: There are some pretty significant arcs to see. Sheriff Earl is someone who seems like he is just angry and hateful all of the time, but we realize how much of a soft spot he has for Mona in the end.
I think Mona is a character whose whole life is the Chicken Ranch and she is heartbroken it goes through struggles, but she is also hopeful and ready for a new life. The same can be said for the girls in the house.
e: What do you love most about Earl, J.R.?
J.R. Rodriguez (JRR): Ed Earl reminds me a lot of both my North Carolina and Puerto Rican family. Simplicity has always been a better fit for my family. When things get complicated, it’s just not fun anymore. I don’t think Ed Earl is really ready for change. He sure doesn’t expect it; he enjoys living in a bubble. When the bubble is popped, he doesn’t know how to slow things down. It’s his simple approach to life I like best—and having the complications take over, it’s easy to get frustrated.
e: Tell me how your character helps drive the story.
JRR: Oh, Ed Earl doesn’t drive the story. It’s Mona. She finds the calm in the storm. The whole matter would be far more screwed up if Ed Earl were to be behind the wheel.
Fortunately, we have Denise Bass. She’s a true superstar. It’s as if the role was written for her. Denise handles me and my short fuse, making the transition to Mona and Ed Earl a simple place of comfort. We haven’t always been close, but as we’ve gotten a bit older, we’ve grown not only to respect each other, but love each other. At this point in my life, I can’t imagine playing Ed Earl opposite anyone more perfect.
e: Denise, what are your thoughts about Mona?
Denise Bass (DB): Mona is a smart and savvy business woman. She learned the business from the bottom up, so to speak, and once she became the owner, she dedicated her life to taking care of the business and the women who worked there. But she’s also a romantic and still believes that anything is possible in life.
You think at first she is the reason the town comes under fire because, “Oh my gosh, we have a whorehouse in our town!” But that’s the furthest thing from the truth. It’s politics—and isn’t it always about politics? Never mind no one in town has an issue with this establishment and it’s been there for a very long time. She has her eyes opened to the harsh reality of what it feels like to have your own town turn on you, even though they have all benefited from her generosity for many years.
e: Do you have a favorite takeaway scene?
JRR: The last scene that defines Mona’s love for Ed Earl, and I like to hope he finally gets it. It’s not an easy scene for either one of us. But then there’s Denise and all her strength, and it just happens. I think the audience take-away will be the grace that Mona lives by and Ed Earl realizing what he has.
DB: The takeaway scene for me is the when the girls realize they are going to have to start over. When they walk away, even though they have some fear about what the future may bring, they hold their heads up and use the strength that is in every woman to move the next moment. Women rock!
e: What has surprised you most about doing this show—themes that are still relevant? Characters you love to hate? Just plain fun?
JRR: It’s not an easy piece of theatre. All the parts have to be there. We’ve hit some bumps in the road, but I think that’s the process. The impressive thing is watching the younger folks. They keep pushing themselves: “That’s wrong; we have to work that”; “I have to make that transition or I’m missing the whole point.” Back in the day it was, “Let’s get this over with; we have to get to Longstreets.” It’s not that way anymore and it makes me feel younger. I want to keep up with their energy.
DB: I will be honest: This role is harder to do than I thought it would be. It really brings the fact home that nothing much has changed with respect to politics, the battle of the sexes, and news reporters who latch on to what they think is a great story—not caring about the how the outcome will change people’s lives, and not always in a good way. It certainly hits close to home with today’s political climate, don’tcha think?
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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