Arizona Broadway Theatre’s presentation of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” which has been little seen since its 3-year Broadway run and subsequent Dolly Parton-Burt Reynolds movie more than 30 years ago, made for rip-roaring, musical dinner theatre last night. Fast-paced and innocently scandalous, the evening whisked by with winks, romps and stomps.
A gorgeous visual foreshadow opened the show before the first scene began, unexpected from a musical that loves to roll around in the dirt a little. Silhouetted by lightning flashes and accentuated by a rumbling thunder clap were lovely feminine shapes behind translucent bedroom walls of Gilbert, Texas’ famed brothel, The Chicken Ranch.
What outsiders would deem ‘a house of ill repute’ in 1972 (historically, the real town on which the show was based is La Grange, Texas), had been a socially accepted, primary economic engine of the little Texas town for generations. Hence, the central conflict of ABT’s “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” involved the confrontation of morally gray, profitable tradition with present-day government stirred up by news media. Headed by working girl turned countrified Madam, Miss Mona, and the well-intentioned, old-fashioned Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd who is sweet on her, the story and a number of fiddling, fun songs unfolded like a rigged poker game.
Producer and Casting Director Cassandra Klaphake starred as Miss Mona. With a rich lower register, her speaking and singing voice lent themselves very well to Miss Mona’s tender, maternal side. She and Sheriff Ed Earl (Mark DiConzo) had a cute rapport which made for crowd titters and even a few misty eyes near the end, during Dodd’s “Good Old Girl” number.
Director Andy Meyers played a powerful Melvin P. Thorpe, the show’s overeager evangelical watchdog news reporter. His flamboyant character was the undoing of the Chicken Ranch as well as a lively production jump-start when he and his back up ensemble entered.
Melvin’s ‘Thorpe Singers’ provided one of the show’s musical highlights as a sin-sational barbershop quartet punctuated by hilarious flashlight choreography. It was hard not to laugh while Melvin’s watchdog team railed against the “copulation going on” at Miss Mona’s “pleasure palace.” A similar male choral blend seeped poignantly onstage, harmonizing a verse of “Good Old Girl” as we witnessed a silent and sad phone conversation between Mona and Ed Earl late in the show.
A second favorite music moment in ABT’s “Whorehouse” production came from the self-conscious waitress Doatsey (Renée Kathleen Koher), whose sorely damaged self-esteem poured out in ballad form. Not unlike other musicals–“Another Suitcase” in Evita or “Another Life” in Bridges of Madison County— the “Doatsey Mae” number from a minor character was one of the most memorable gems in the production.
The third musical spotlight award went to Chanel Bragg who played housekeeper Jewel at the Chicken Ranch. Her “Twenty Four Hours of Lovin” electrified the ‘boarding house’s’ soft lighting as she single-handedly powered the stage and inspired the working girls to join in.
Last night’s Aggie football team embraced their choreography with skill and whoops. Their hoofing was quite possibly even better than their offstage winning, rushing game. The spunky dance break with just a hint of strip tease was especially a crowd-pleaser.
That Texas, and now Arizona, has a whorehouse in it is far less criminal, and far more enjoyable, than the darn sensational media mongrels would have us believe. On this particular ABT brothel–with a tasty dinner and drinks to boot, it is money well spent.