Thursday, October 11, 2018

"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Larry L. King & Peter Masterson (Book); Carol Hall (Music & Lyrics)
Based on a Story by Larry L. King

Dyan McBride as Miss Mona with Her Girls
Sometimes, real life can actually be more fantastical than fiction.  Such is the case of the history of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas – a brothel that operated from 1905 to 1973, serving the carnal needs of business men, politicians, farmers, and local athletic teams.  Only after a TV reporter from Houston made it his crusade to expose the well-known, long-term haven for whoopee did the Governor of Texas finally demand its closure. 

All of this was captured in a story by Larry L. King and then converted by him and Peter Masterson into the book of a 1978 musical that became a Broadway and touring hit.  With rambunctious, foot-stomping music and more downright hilarious lyrics by Carol Hall than you can shake a stick at (as they say in Texas), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas takes the original story of the Chicken Ranch and creates a sure’nuff barnstormer of a story.  When put into the hands of 42nd Street Moon under the yeehaw direction of Christina Lazo, ya’ll are sure fixin’ to have a darn good time if’n you make it over to the Gateway Theatre, bless your heart.

Scenic Designer Brian Watson has cleverly created a “li’l ole pissant country place” outside the fictional town of Gilbert, Texas -- complete with two levels of weather-board slabs, all sorts of Texas Aggie booster signs, and the Lone Star of Texas reverently and irreverently filling up cubbies and corners.  Ruling over the establishment is Miss Mona, who informs us in a friendly Texas twang sung with sparkle and wink of the eye that all that happens here is “just lots of good will and maybe one small thrill, but there’s nothing dirty going on.” 

Dyan McBride steps into the six-inch heels of the likes of Ann-Margaret and Dolly Parton (former Miss Monas on stage and cinema) fabulously to portray a big smiling, big-hearted Miss Mona, full of dignity and elegance but also just enough down-home to make everyone – including us – feel a big Texas welcome to her humble abode.  That dwelling in the dusty countryside is also home to a bevy of scantily clad, young ladies of various shapes and sizes, all more than ready to follow Miss Mona’s rules like no tacky tattoos, no wallowing in bed, and certainly no chewing gum.  (“It looks like a cow,” she sings while pointing her long-nailed finger at them in warning.)

The “girls” assembled before us not only can cozy up with friendly manners to the men and boys arriving, they can sing and dance up a storm.  They bring voices that pleasantly harmonize with a Southern bent and just enough thrill and shrill to convince us they are snappy happy to serve Miss Mona and their 24-hour-per-day, arriving “guests.”  Ruby Rae (Anne Norland), Ginger (Andrea Dennison-Laufer), Linda Lou (Yuliya Eydelnant), Angel (Ashley Garlick), Shy (Madison Genovese), and Dawn (Brittany Monroe) each gets a chance to strut her stuff and show off her fine vocals both in their hostess roles at the Chicken House as well as in a number of other roles from Aggie Cheerleaders to self-righteous townsfolk to choir-robed members of the snooping, spying Thorpe Singers.

DC Scarpelli as Melvin P. Thorpe & The Thorpe Singers
It is when those singers and their idol, Melvin P. Thorpe – a TV hotdog reporter who is part evangelist, part showman, and totally narcissistic – begin to go after their latest target as so-called watchdogs of Texas that thunderclouds start to gather on Miss Mona’s horizon.  DC Scarpelli is deliciously funny and irritating as the flamboyant, finger-pointing Thorpe. Light-in-his-slippers but also straight-necked righteous, he alerts his TV audience with a high-pitched, snarky singing voice that “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It.” 

DC Scarpelli as Thorpe & Brian Watson as the Governor
Long-time friend, sometime-lover, and perennial protector of Miss Mona -- Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd – is not about to let Melvin P. Thorpe just come to town and run out the local, thriving business and favorite pastime of many without a fight and a few threats of his bullets flying over the head of a freaked-out, scaredy-cat Thorpe.  Unfortunately, the cowboy gun-waving, barking bravado of the Sheriff (played with much gusto and just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek by Michael Ray Wisely) is all caught on camera, leading to a goofy grinning Governor to give in to protesting do-gooders’ call to “shut ‘er down.”  Brian Watson hysterically plays in an exaggerated, caricature-rich style both the Governor and a local pain-in-the-butt (for the Sheriff, at least), C.J. Scruggs.   In the second act’s opening “The Sidestep,” Mr. Watson’s Governor provides a primer on how to deflect reporter’s questions to say nothing at all with a lot of conviction, leading to a tap-dance that can fool no one but can totally entertain us, the howling audience.

Throughout all the hilarity of this 42nd Street recreation of a Texas real-life farce (with a more than a few artistic liberties taken, of course), the choreography of Christina Lazo wows again and again while at the same time, if often is uproariously funny.  The Aggie cheerleaders of Texas A&M – better known as Angelettes – are Mona’s girls in new outfits and roles as they perform “The Angelette March,” each attached to two life-sized puppets on either side of her and all engaged in a tap-dancing, high-kicking dance line in breast-revealing outfits full of glitz and glitter. 

Michael Barrett Austin as Senator Wingwoah with the Aggies
But that array of dancing silliness is nothing compared to “The Aggie Song,” a sweaty, shirtless romp in the locker room by the winning footballers who give a testosterone-packed display of incredible boot-stomping, high-jumping, and side-stepping.  What they do on a bench while undressing and dressing for a night at Miss Mona’s is a choreographic wonder, with the entire, small theatre literally shaking with their collective pounding of boot heels and toes.  And when they sing in sweet, innocent-sounding harmony “Twenty-two miles until we get to heaven,” we can only wonder at the juices flowing through their steamy bodies as they declare, “Where history and aggie boys get made.”

Brian Wilson, Taylor Bartolucci & Michael Barrett Austin
The talented cast includes other both endearing and totally quirky characters worthy of a quick shout-out.  Michael Barrett Austin is both the twitchy, tee-heeing Mayor Rufus Poindexter of Gilbert and the snappy, sniping Senator Wingwoah – both of whom put their fingers into the air to realize the wind has shifted, meaning they can no longer use those same fingers to caress the bodies of Miss Mona’s girls, something both have been in the long habit of doing.  Taylor Bartolucci is the town’s café waitress, Doatsey Mae, who sings in pitch-perfect Texas drawl (“Doatsey Mae”), of her life’s dreams and regrets with a voice that reverberates in pent-up emotions.  Her slightly hunch-backed, bespectacled portrayal is one of the evening’s best.

Finally, Miss Mona’s household helpmate (and clearly a trusted friend, too) is Jewel –a reminder that in the early 1970s of outback Texas there were limited options for African American women beyond wearing an apron in a white household.  But when this Jewel has a night off and gets to tell the girls what she is going to do, Doris Bumpus receives one of the night’s loudest, most sustained applauses as she sings “Twenty-Four House of Lovin,’” recounting hour-by-hour in exacting descriptions what she plans to do in bed with her in-town boyfriend.  To add just the right amount of titillation, she is surrounded by Mona’s family of girls, who demonstrate in hip-swirling, body twisting, arm-hugging fashions all the scenes she describes.

Much of the evening’s fun comes through the enormous array of flowing evening dresses, skimpy lingerie, rugged cowboy attire, and hokey townspeople wardrobes that Tammy Berlin has designed.  The amount of backstage changing in the oft-short times allotted must have been a feat of much planning and a show unto itself!

The lighting of designer Michael Palumbo, the wigs of Lexie Lazear, and the many properties of Taylor Bartolucci all do their share in creating scene after scene full of sentimental fun and feeling.  Music Director Dave Dobrusky leads on the keyboards a musical ensemble of only three where piano, violin, and bass often sound like an entire band in the background. 

The one slight downfall of the production is that individual mikes could have enhanced the vocals of soloists who, to a person, could have often used a little more ‘oomph’ for their excellent voices to sound at full strength. 

In 2018, the MeToo Movement would probably not approve of this musical, even if it is clearly a farcical look at a weird piece of Texas history. There is some reason to believe this musical may have its days numbered going forward, even if the music, choreography, and overall heart and humor still shine forth in an excellent-in-all-respects production like that of 42nd Street Moon. 

On top of that hesitation about the musical’s merits, in the current political atmosphere it is also a particular downer to see that the righteous but ridiculous right-wingers are the self-declared heroes in the end of this story.  Perhaps when written in the late ‘70s, this was not such a wince-producing moment; but for those of us who must listen to the daily gloats of certain leaders and read the continuous Tweets of one in particular, it is difficult not to be particularly sad that the do-gooders won their day back in Gilbert, Texas.

Rating: 4 E

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas continues through October 23, 2018 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207, Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Photos Credit”  Ben Krantz Studio

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