Good ole boys and good time gals are a match made in chicken-fried heaven in Signature Theatre’s racy and randy revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the 1978 musical that combines putting out and politics (wait, aren’t they the same thing?), directed with Tabasco tang by artistic director Eric Schaeffer.
In this sharp production, Mr. Schaeffer reveals a soft spot for society’s outsiders—which in this case, are the ladies of the evening at the Chicken Ranch, presided over by the bountiful and equally exiled madam, Miss Mona (Sherri L. Edelen)—and a hard line toward hypocritical politicians and spotlight-hogging media mavens.
The women of the Chicken Ranch may strut their stuff in cheerfully cheesy Fredericks of Hollywood-style lingerie, accessorized by costume designer Kathleen Geldard with cowboy boots and Daisy Dukes (this being Texas, mind you), but they are mostly damaged goods, coming into the world’s oldest profession to escape—or perhaps exorcise—difficult, abusive pasts. Even for Miss Mona, who is perkier than a calico quilt, making a living on her back has been no bed of roses. Yet, as she quips at one point, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I started out poor, and I worked my way up to outcast.”
Miss Mona began as one of the working girls at the Chicken Ranch, a by-God venerable Texas institution, founded in 1910 just outside of the city limits of Gilbert located in Lanville County (based on a real-life bordello in the town of La Grange, Tx). It got its name because during hard times the patrons paid for pleasure with poultry and in the late ‘70s Miss Mona is running the place pretty much the same way the original owner, Miss Wulla Jean, did—with a strict moral and hygienic code, and a down-home sense of fun.
She also continues Miss Wulla Jean’s civic commitment, contributing to everything from Little League to the Rotary Club. Everybody frequents the Chicken Ranch—politicians, police officers, even testosterone-fueled football players (the Aggies from Texas A&M), whose post-triumph orgy is bankrolled by a senator, an alum of both the university and the Chicken Ranch.
The good times and loyalty—on both the customer and service side—for this historic establishment is feted in the first act, starting with gospel-y “20 Fans,” an ode to the hot goings-on and décor at the Chicken Ranch, which is rendered by scenic designer Collin Ranney as a harlot-red western-style frontier saloon, complete with flocked wallpaper, ceiling fans with wagon wheel light fixtures, longhorn knickknacks and a velvet banquette in the parlor.
Miss Mona displays her no-nonsense brass in the twangy “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place,” which runs down the rules for the new girls, the hard-bitten Angel (Erin Driscoll) and neophyte Shy (Madeline Botteri), while the veterans demonstrate the ranch’s distinctive brand of lady-like raunch with thigh-slapping, boot-scooting brio.
Everything is fine and dandy—the customers are well-laid and happy and Miss Mona’s long-standing fooling around with the town sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd (the ripsnortingly profane Thomas Adrian Simpson), is percolating along—but then that busybody newshound, Melvin P. Thorpe (a delectably unctuous Christopher Bloch, proudly wearing one of the most heinous hairpieces of all time), gets wind of the Chicken Ranch, and launches a TV campaign demanding that the hotbed of sin get shut down.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Scheduled closing date: Oct 7, 2012
2 hours with 1 intermission
The Max Theatre at
4200 Campbell Avenue Arlington, VA
Tickets: $72 – $77
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Ed Earl’s profanity-peppered response to Melvin’s crusade, which causes folks to drop their forks while watching the news during supper, doesn’t help matters much. Then the Governor (Dan Manning) is forced to take a stand, which he does with the issue-skirting perfection of a born politician, in the hilarious showstopper “The Sidestep,” where Mr. Manning gracefully demonstrates the art of forcefully saying nothing.
Those accustomed to musicals where everything is tied up with a shiny bow before the curtain falls may be thrown a bit by the rueful and realistic denouement to Whorehouse. There’s no happy ending, no two-stepping off into the sunset for Miss Mona and Ed Earl. She and the girls are whores, plain and simple, and Miss Mona and her assistant Jewel (Nova Y. Payton) seem to make a certain peace with that.
However, before the Chicken Ranch fades into local lore, Whorehouse provides more entertainment than a three-legged pig at a barn dance. Miss Edelen exudes seasoned sensuality and flinty good sense as Miss Mona and her voice is in top-drawer form in the songs “Girl, You’re a Woman,” “Bus From Amarillo” and the dizzying, diva swoops and swirls of her duet with Miss Payton, “No Lies.”
Miss Payton shows that her bringing-the-house-down performance as Motormouth Maybelle in Signature’s production of Hairspray last season was no fluke, displaying formidable pipes and an Etta James sense of diction and style in her number, “24 Hours of Lovin’.” All of Miss Mona’s girls excel as sex pots made of doll parts—easily broken but still standing tall.
With its country-proud score and old-timey charm, Whorehouse is not the most sophisticated musical out there, but you gotta love a show that celebrates the notion that it’s better to be a whore than a two-faced prick.
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, reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Jeannie Theismann . ArlingtonConnection
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Diane Holcomb Wilsher . AccidentalThespian
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Trey Graham . City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Kyle Osborne . Examiner.com
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
Jeannie Theismann . ArlingtonConnection