A Raunchy and Entertaining Musical
TriArts’ production, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” is rollicking, raucous and raunchy fun. If the musical itself is forgettable, the singers and dancers here are not. Directed masterfully by John Simkins, TriArts’ artistic director, and given stomping, good, original choreography by MK Lawson, the cast of both young and older actors delivers a delightful summer diversion. “Whorehouse” — that’s the title folks, so get over it — is about the famous Chicken Ranch bordello that thrived in La Grange, Texas, for decades until a crusading TV reporter from Houston, an ambitious attorney general and the first Republican governor since Reconstruction combined forces to shut it down. After years of catering to politicians, ranchers, working men and college students — famously the Aggie football team from Texas A&M University — and supporting town philanthropies, the madam, Edna Milton, found herself without defenders, and her business closed. Based on a magazine article about the ranch and its story by Larry L. King, “Whorehouse” originally opened off-Broadway. But it was a lean year for musicals, so theater owners came calling and soon moved the show to Broadway. To their surprise and that of the show’s creators, the musical played more than 1,500 performances. Much of the original show’s success came from the extravagant, energetic, propulsive choreography of the incomparable Tommy Tune. The score by Carol Hall, an expert songwriter from Abilene, Texas, was not really standard musical theater. Rather it was a collection of well-crafted numbers, some of which moved the action along and some of which were peculiarly stand-alone. Nominated for a 1979 Tony Award for best musical, it lost to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” a seminal and iconic work of “new musical theater.” In “Whorehouse,” Miss Mona (the play’s name for Edna Milton) presides over a house of satisfied, happy hookers supported by her longtime housekeeper, Jewel. Mona (well played by Equity actress Adinah Alexander) has exacting house rules for her girls and for her customers. And she has the close friendship of Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (a twitchy, loud Travis Mitchell), with whom she spent a single night in Galveston years before. After the moralizing TV reporter Melvin P. Thorpe launches his campaign against the brothel, Sheriff Dodd makes the error of responding in an expletive-filled tirade that is caught on camera. The mayor and leading citizens feel embarrassed and begin to desert Mona, the governor gets involved and closure becomes inevitable. What makes this TriArts production so much fun are performances and voices that surprise. Utech’s “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’ ” is a booming affirmation of the joy of sex as she tells us what she and her boyfriend may do on her day off. Doatsey Mae (Ashley Sweetman, with a wonderful voice), the coffee shop waitress, sings a wistful song about what her life might have been if she had had more courage. “The Aggie Song” is performed and danced by a group of energetic, big-voiced young men — especially Drew Berezowitz and Christian Lowery — about to take their overload of testosterone to the ranch after winning a football game against their rivals, the Texas Longhorns. The reward trip is provided by Senator Wingwoah (the excellent Duane Estes), a cheerful, oblivious hypocrite. Mitchell makes “Good Old Girl,” his sweet song of affection for Mona, both manly and gentle. The girls’ song of acceptance that the brothel is closing, “Hard Candy Christmas” makes clear why this is the best known song from the show. And Alexander ends the evening with a heartfelt, stentorian rendition of “The Bus from Amarillo.” However, the biggest surprise is Sharon’s John Champion as the governor. Granted he performs the cleverest song in the play, “The Sidestep,” a lesson in decision and conflict avoidance for politicians. But Champion sings in a voice that in the year since he appeared in “42nd Street” has mellowed and gained power and that may well remind you of Bing Crosby. And his impish smile and relaxed dancing are so winning that on the night I saw the show he got the loudest applause during curtain calls. “Whorehouse” plays on Erik Diaz’s two-story set, and the girls’ rooms are defined by curtains of different fabrics that are raised and lowered with the action. Michelle Eden Hunphrey’s costumes may be a little Texas cartoonish, but they work, as does the lighting of Chris Dallos. Music Director Robert Rokicki, an emerging musical theater composer in his own right, leads a sizable band expertly and provides sensitive accompaniment for his singers. Following Artistic Director Michael Berkeley’s propulsive, upbeat “Divas,” “Whorehouse” is a rootin’, tootin’ kickoff to the regular TriArts season. The show plays through July 15. For tickets visit the box office, call 860-364-7469, or go to www.triarts.net.