Jockeying for positions: The Aggies
football team (above) get randy and ready for a visit with Miss Mona
(J.J. Hobbs, below, left) and her clientele in The Best Little
Whorehouse in Texas.
One of the most unusual pieces of Americana to come down the pike, Whorehouse puts a corn-fed grinning face on prostitution in the heartland. Based on Texas journalist Larry L. King’s article in Playboy
chronicling the rise and fall of the real Chicken Ranch brothel, the
show’s book by King and showbiz veteran Peter Masterson bounces happily
between dirty jokes, folktales and sociological studies. With a jaunty
score by Carol Hall, Whorehouse served up enough political
satire and winking jokes to keep the Broadway show running for four
years and spawn a less successful 1982 movie version starring Burt
Reynolds and Dolly Parton.
The Chicken Ranch, an East Texas
institution, got its name during the Depression, when customers brought
poultry to trade for the ladies’ services. A visit to the ranch even
became a part of the initiation ritual for Texas A&M University
freshmen. The place chugged along until running afoul of a crusading
broadcaster who exposed the political good ole boy network that kept it
off law enforcement’s radar.
The musical, set in November 1973,
centers on the fictional lady in charge. Miss Mona Stangley, who
doesn’t like to be called a madam, nurtures her girls and makes sure to
provide an (almost) wholesome experience for their customers, who seem
to include every man in the county. Mona’s special relationship with
Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd keeps things rolling along fine for the ranch. It
seems Mona and Ed Earl shared a special moment during John F. Kennedy’s
inauguration, and she just can’t forget it. Director Thompson,
recognizing the Dukes of Hazzard flavor of the material, also serves as the cheerful narrator.
entertainingly follows the outline of the big Broadway musical, the
book appears a bit tentative as it explores the motivations of its
perky ladies of the evening. The stories of Angel and Shy (played by
Meredith Van Scoy and Aisling Halpin), two new recruits who give us the
first look into Miss Mona’s family-style way of doing business, are
sketchy. We want to know more about them than song and dance allows.
The show pops to life a half-hour in
with a realistically drawn diner scene, as local politicians and a town
journalist discuss the ranch crisis under the watchful eye and sharp
tongue of waitress Doatsey Mae, here sharply portrayed by Katherine
Proctor. This scene, a vivid reminder that Whorehouse was
originally staged by the Actors’ Studio, leads to the song, “Doatsey
Mae,” in which the waitress opens the screen door to all the
unfulfilled longings of a small-town girl grown up.
Hard upon this wistful moment, the stage
explodes joyously as the Texas Aggies football team prepares for their
night at the Chicken Ranch. The relentlessly exuberant choreography by
Daniel B. Hess brings the boys from the locker room to the steps of
Mona’s place. With so much expert high-stepping going on, it’s tough to
believe they still have the energy for what waits for them beyond the
A musical with as many irons in the fire as Whorehouse
rises or falls by the strength of its ensemble. J.J. Hobbs sometimes
seems swamped in Miss Mona’s camped-up glad rags, yet all is forgiven
when she opens her mouth to sing, lending both sensitivity and
authority to “The Bus From Amarillo.” Scott Wakefield inhabits Ed Earl;
as foulmouthed Southernisms roll easily off his tongue, Wakefield knows
how to land a joke, and every sniff or roll of the shoulder takes on
As Melvin P. Thorpe, a broad caricature
of the Southern crusading reporter-cum-revivalist, Michael Kreutz
hilariously works it hard under a towering white pompadour. Big-voiced
Mitzi Greshawn Smith as Jewel, Miss Mona’s wise and lusty maid, rocks
the stage with two of the show‘s best numbers, “Twenty-Four Hours of
Love” and “No Lies.” CRT favorite Claus Evans puts in a terrific cameo
as the Texas governor who illustrates an all-too-familiar political
dance in “The Sidestep.” The jim-dandy chorus of assorted townsfolk,
“girls” and college boys add a real sheen to the production.
Cortland Repertory’s winning mounting of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas almost makes us forget the less wholesome aspects of the show. Now that’s a real trick.
This production runs through Aug. 2. See Times Table for information.