“Arlington has a Whorehouse in it, Lord have mercy on our souls!” Don’t call the authorities. But you can call to get tickets, at least if it doesn’t sell out.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is now at Signature Theatre. The boot-scootin’, bawdy, musical hidin’ a heart as big as the Lone Star State has come to the Washington, D.C. and brought the brothel.
“We have built the whorehouse on the stage,” said Signature’s artistic director Eric Schaeffer who directs this season opening musical for the Tony Award-winning regional theatre.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1978, the musical had a 1584 performance run and lengthy tour. A critically maligned movie musical in the 1980s had Dolly Parton as Miss Mona, owner and operator of the brothel.
Writer Larry L. King wrote about the actual Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas for Playboy magazine in 1974, which became the outline for the musical co-authored by Peter Masterson with songs by Carol Hall. A zealous toupée-wearing, investigative reporter from the state capitol exposed the La Grange Chicken Ranch, run by Edna Milton. Miss Edna was the last madam of the long-running business. The Chicken Ranch closed August 1, 1973.
The stage musical is set in fictional Gilbert, Texas, where for close to 150 years, a bordello has been quietly running just outside the town. Getting its nickname from allowing cash-strapped customers to trade poultry for a good time, the Chicken Ranch is run by former working girl Mona Stangely. Townies, senators, and the Texas A & M football team are all regular “guests” of the Chicken Ranch.
Once a toupée-wearing, investigative reporter from Houston decides to expose Gilbert’s little secret, all of Texas is either outraged at the illegal enterprise or scared they will close the pleasure palace. Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd does his best to protect the ladies of the Chicken Ranch from the meddlesome TV-reporter.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas plays through October 7, 2012. The show is directed by Schaeffer (Broadway’s Follies and Hairspray at Signature). Helen Hayes Award-winner Sherri L. Edelen plays Miss Mona Stangley, proprietor of the Chicken Ranch. Thomas Adrian Simpson is Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd.
Why brought this musical to the Signature stage? We talked to Schaeffer and Edelen to find out more about the production and why its message resonates even today.
DC THEATRE SCENE: Why do this show?
ERIC SCHAEFFER: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is the perfect Signature show. I thought it was time to revisit it, not just because it is an election year. It really hasn’t had any major revivals so it’s almost forgotten now, but it really is a good musical.
You will have a great time, but it punches you in the gut when you least expect it.
What kind of show is Whorehouse?
SCHAEFFER: There is a lot more to it than a musical set in a whorehouse. It is not just light and fluffy. It works on so many different levels. It faces hypocrisy head on.
We were lucky to have the songwriter Carol Hall visit rehearsals. She came in just before previews began and she only had five notes. She said that she could really see the heart and soul of the show and the characters in what we were doing. Carol told me, “There is a fine line in this show. And you go all the way up to that line.”
What will the audience see when they enter the MAX?
SCHAEFFER: The original Broadway production was almost minimalist – a couple of staircases representing the Chicken Ranch – but we have built the whorehouse on the stage. We also use the entire space, so the audience will be pulled into the show even more. We’ve also included a video section for the show’s opening, “Twenty Fans.” And there is now a new dance break during the musical number “Twenty Four Hours.” It didn’t have one before.
Carol Hall also allowed us to include a song she wrote about ten years ago, when Ann-Margret did the show, as Miss Mona. “Friend to Me” is sung at the end and it brings the story back around to Miss Mona.
And as far as the casting of the show, I’m proud of the fact that the cast is made up of all Washington-based actors.
Even though the lead characters, Mona and the Sheriff, aren’t married, actors – Sherri L. Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson – actually are.
SCHAEFFER: Tom and Sherri’s relationship in real life brings a whole different level to the Sheriff and Mona. You get a sense of a deep relationship.
Sherri, how has it been playing these roles opposite each other?
SHERRI L. EDELEN: This is the first time we’ve been in a show together, other than some bit parts in the same show. We’ve only been married five years. But the great thing about it is we could work on things at home.
Describe Miss Mona.
EDELEN: She was a Depression era baby, who became a prostitute out of necessity. Luckily she was mentored by a top madam, and she got to run the Chicken Ranch for about 20 years. She described her business as a boarding house, and she was correct. They all lived there; she paid taxes, and was very philanthropic in the community. Mona is a very honest person, even though what she did was illegal.
How did you approach Miss Mona and the show?
EDELEN: I read about the real Mona, Miss Edna. And I grew up in Tennessee, so getting the Southern sensibility was not hard. We would have called her a ‘broad’ where I’m from. I like that she brought a sense of decency to prostitution, and her honesty.
What I am doing onstage I really took from the script and the music. It’s based on these facts, but it is really more about the media grabbing something and making a big deal out of it.
Scheduled closing date: Oct 7, 2012
The Max Theatre at
4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, VA
Tickets: $72 – $77
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The show has comedy, lots of great songs, but in the end …
EDELEN: Mona’s journey, when we’re done, her girls, too, is a very emotional arc. All the girls who worked for Mona end up homeless and out of work. In reality, no one ever bought the La Grange [Texas] Chicken Ranch property. Edna stopped paying taxes on it. In the show, the same thing happens to Miss Mona.
It affects a lot more than some right-wingers getting the whorehouse closed down.
Is that how the show has resonance today, all these years later?
EDELEN: I think people will be surprised at how relevant the politics are. And in some ways, nothing has changed.
SCHAEFFER: Yes, these were people, plain and simple. When the Chicken Ranch closes, they are homeless and unemployed.
Thirty-four years after the show began, and nearly 40 years after the real Chicken Ranch was closed down, things like this are still happening. It strikes me is we haven’t learned anything. The big difference is back then the news cycle was slower. Now with instant news, plus Twitter and Facebook, people are so quick to put their opinions out there without thinking of the consequences.
Just because you don’t agree with them doesn’t make your actions right.
What surprises people who come to see Whorehouse?
EDELEN: They are surprised about the love story. We’ve seen the audiences being very receptive – and they have sure been laughing a lot. It’s great that people are coming who don’t know the show. This show is entertaining and it will tug at your heartstrings.
THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, Book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, Music and Lyrics by Carol Hall, directed by Eric Schaeffer, produced by Signature Theatre. Features: Sherri L. Edelen (Miss Mona Stangley), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Sheriff Ed Earl Christopher Bloch (Melvin P. Thorpe), Nova Y. Payton (Jewel), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Doatsy Mae), Dan Manning (the Governor) and Erin Driscoll (Angel). Ensemble: Madeline Botteri, Matt Conner, Amy McWilliams, Stephen F. Schmidt, Jamie Eacker, Tamara Young, Maria Rizzo, Nora Palka, Nadia Harika, and Brianne Camp. Rounding out the cast, are the Aggie boys played by Stephen Gregory Smith, Gannon O’Brien, Vincent Kempski, Davis Hasty, Benjamin Horen, David Jennings, and Jay Adriel.