The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, music and lyrics by Carol Hall. Directed and choreographed by T. Dewayne Barrett
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"There’s an hour of Oooh, that’s nice."
Kathy Halenda and Ashley Kelly; photo provided
In 1973 a brothel in rural Texas, near La Grange, was closed down after nearly a century of service to its community. It was run by a woman whose scrupulous management and careful care of her girls made the place a perfect get-away for men from all over Texas and all over the country. It was closed as the result of a campaign against it lead by a televangelist/reporter. It ultimately reopened outside of Las Vegas a few years later. The place was known as "The Chicken Ranch" partly due to its policy during the Depression of accepting poultry for payment when dollars were not obtainable.
In 1978 this story was adapted into a hit musical called "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" which played for 1584 performance, won two Tony Awards (it was nominated for seven) and four Drama Desk Awards. Set in the fictional town of Gilbert (substituting for La Grange) it told a ribald version of the true story and managed to scandalize Broadway audiences. Now it is playing at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York. Please note: this is not a child-friendly musical; young girls take up prostitution as a career which many parents may not find a suitable recommendation for their children. Also note: this is not a very good show, after all is said and done, and not really recommended for anyone.
First of all the director doesn’t seem to understand the space in which he is working. T. Dewayne Barrett, in spite of his many directorial credits including on cruise ships, moves his actors awkwardly often blocking a good portion of his audience from watching important moments. This makes the musical at hand a difficult one: lyrics are lost, physical and facial expressions of emotion are lost, the essence of what made the show such a hit, the human factors in the characters, are lost.
On the positive side are some stellar performances and a fine, fine country band led by the Mac-Haydn’s resident conductor and keyboardist Joshua D. Smith. Margaret Hickey plays a mean country fiddle and Harry Lumb is her equal on the bass guitar. The other four players comprise the balance of the Rio Grande Band. They make the country sound pervasive and good.
As singers of this music the best was Kathy Halenda as Miss Mona Stangley, the proprietor of the Chicken Ranch. She performed some of the finest songs in the Carol Hall score including "No Lies," and "The Bus From Amarillo." Ashley Kelly rendered "Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’" beautifully and Gillian Hassert made the self-descriptive song "Doatsey Mae" into a thing of beauty. The Girls of the Chicken Ranch turned their fairwell song "Hard Candy Christmas" into a highly memorable number while the Governor played with "The Sidestep" like a pro, dancing and singing with ease and style.
Style is really what this show is about and the company seem to have found style in their classy underwear, which amounts to about one third of Jimm Halliday’s fine costumes. The above constitute the best this show has to offer. Without getting moral about it, for I hate getting moral and I love other prostitute-oriented shows like ThreePenny Opera and La Traviata and La Boheme and so on, this show needs some pruning. The songs are too long and too repetitious, the characters are mostly interchangeable and the plot slips from realistic to parody and back far too often. Even good actors cannot solve the problems in this production.
Halenda is superb as Miss Mona. She really is. She carries off the referred to slimy traits of the woman she plays without ever coming off as anything worse than a Mae West clone with the gowns to prove it. If someone is keeping track of her work, they need to double-check this one for flaws; they won’t find one anywhere.
Jim Kidd makes a passable if not too plausible Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. When he sings he isn’t half bad, but he isn’t half good either. His scenes had a recitation quality that didn’t make me like his work. As the revivalist/newsman Melvin P. Thorpe we have Gabe Belyeu whose own work becomes more interesting each week, but his character here is a caricature like none other in the show. What we buy is the man in the role and not the man behind him who does all of the work and that’s a pity because this curious role is made silly and inane through its performance by Belyeu who has turned in better work this season.
Ashley Kelly is heartfelt in her solo and her duet and in her scenes with the girls. This is her best role of the season at the Mac. Gillian Hassert gives Doatsey Mae sass and symbolism and she also sings her one song with finesse. Lea Nardi is an excellent Angel and Caitlin Wilayto almost rescues Shy from her all-too-willing fall into prostitution.
The rest of the company do all they’re asked to do in a show that doesn’t deserve their talents. It’s always interesting revisiting a show you remember from your youth. What I liked about it then remains the same, but what is different now is the perspective of all those years in between when I began to understand how things work best. Casting Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in the film was a stroke of genius. That this show doesn’t fare any better is a problem that cannot be easily solved: cutting the score in half might help; a better casting person might have gone a different way, who knows?; even changing the ending in some way to make it more positive and upbeat and helpful could aid it now: "I missed my only chance, and I don’t know why" Miss Mona sings and she’s absolutely right to the benefit of her character and the detriment of the show itself. It’s not a good solution. I am not sure there is one.
Gillian Hassert as Doatsy Mae; photo provided
Gabe Belyeu and the Dogettes; photo provided
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas plays through August 18 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre at 1925 State Road 203, Chatham, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go on line to www.MacHaydnTheatre.org.