Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2003
Let’s get this out of the way right up front. This is a musical about a whorehouse. If you have overwhelming moral, legal, religious, or ethical concerns about the issue of prostitution, this is not the show for you. I am not saying that you have to be pro-prostitution to enjoy it, but you do have to be ready to set aside any qualms and buy into this rather too rosy portrait of the world’s oldest profession for a few hours. If you do, you will be rewarded with a highly entertaining show – filled with good music, lots of Texas two-steppin’, and plenty of earthy country-style humor.
TBLWIT (I could refer to the show repeatedly as “Whorehouse”, but using its initials seems more genteel for a family publication) is based on a true story – in fact there is more verity in its plot than in “The Sound of Music” – only in this case the names have been changed to protect the “innocent.” A brothel called The Chicken Ranch (so named because customers paid in poultry during the Great Depression) operated in La Grange, Texas, from 1844 until 1973, when it was closed down through the efforts of zealous reporter, who can still be seen on every night on television in Houston. The last madam started her career at the Ranch as a “working girl” in 1952 and took over after her predecessor passed away. The Chicken Ranch donated considerable sums to local causes and political campaigns. The madam had a close relationship with the county sheriff, who in the end, at the Governor’s orders, closed the Ranch down.
I have carefully omitted the names of the real-life players, so as not to confuse matters because the plot of TBLWIT follows reality closely, and this is a review of the musical comedy version. Things are much cuter and there is more singing in the latter, but the tales are so similar that both raise fundamental questions about our perceptions of right and wrong. These questions kept nagging at me during and after the show, but they are part of what must be overlooked in order to truly enjoy the evening.
And there is a lot to enjoy in this Mac-Haydn production. Kathy Halenda is just about perfect as the madam, Miss Mona. She is old enough to be believable and young enough to look just great in Jimm Halliday’s over-the-top costumes, which were obviously made just for her. That gold gown she wears to welcome the Aggies to the Chicken Ranch after their big football win is to die for! Halenda is in fine voice as well, and she blends well with Mac-Haydn regular Marcia Kunkel, another full-voiced woman, as Jewel, the bordello’s housekeeper. Kunkel raises the roof with her solo “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’.”
Jim Kidd as sheriff Ed Earl Dodd is not quite Halenda’s match. But, as always, he is a handsome and stalwart leading man. But men, as Miss Mona says, are only 92% bad. The ladies of the fictional Gilbert, Texas, don’t have much use for them, nor do they make themselves very useful, or popular, during the show. It is the men who make the Chicken Ranch both a necessity and a viable business. And it is the men who then get on their high horse and have the place closed down. Therefore the male roles in TBLWIT, with the exception of Our Hero Ed Earl, do not amount to a hill of beans.
John Baker and David Bondrow handle the comic slime-ball roles of TV crusader Melvin P. Thorpe and the Governor of Texas. Since a recent Texas governor is now in the White House, the broad cartoonish good-ole-boy character seems more out of place today than it did in 1973, but Bondrow shakes his fanny, performs a delightful softshoe, and does a nifty trick with his hat that compensate for the dated script. Baker is oily and unctuous to a tee. I was very jealous of his red, white & blue cowboy boots and that glam lone star cape.
So let’s get back to the ladies. Katie Cheek, Kristen Clark, Danielle Crinnion, Lisa Karlin, Jackie Lamptey, Karla Shook, Kelly Shook, and Tiffany Thornton play Miss Mona’s “girls.” They also portray shockingly repressed members of Melvin P. Thorpe’s entourage, and bubble-headed Aggie Angelette cheerleaders, accompanied by some “assistants” with “bubbles” fore and aft but none between their ears. The Mac-Haydn has put together an ensemble of some really outstanding singers this year, and it is a treat to hear them in all their incarnations – both solo and in chorus. They also look most alluring in their “working clothes.”
In one of the more inscrutable moments in the book, Doatsey Mae (Kathryn Moore), the waitress at the local café is given a solo number about how “respectable” women also have sexual urges and like to be treated as desirable and exciting. Well, duh! I suppose that was a revelation in 1973 but it is kind of a no-brainer today. On the other hand, the character and Moore are appealing, and you are left wishing she had more to do than sing that one number. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if the whole story had been told through the eyes of a down-to-earth, average gal like Doatsey Mae.
Instead we have a book written by two men – Larry L. King and Peter Masterson – and music and lyrics written by a woman, Carol Hall. The show was inspired by an article King penned in “Playboy” in 1974, which gives you a good idea of the audience at which the original tale was aimed. Hall is more interested in the women and expressing their outlandishly ordinary lives in song. The 1970’s was the height of the militant feminist movement in America, and there is no doubt that Miss Mona and her girls are presented as truly independent and liberated women who fall victim to a repressive male regime. Schizophrenic is a good word for the creative process which birthed this show.
And there has been controversy from the start. TV ads for the Broadway production couldn’t mention the title of the show, which posed a marketing problem of the first order. And a Catholic Archbishop had subway ads inviting people to “Have fun at the Whorehouse” removed. Even now, in the new millennium, an east coast college banned a student production of TBLWIT because it was deemed “dangerous.” The Chicken Ranch scandal and its several aftermaths ruined the career of the real-life sheriff involved. He resigned in 1980, but after his death two years later, he was honored by the Governor of Texas for solving every murder and bank robbery in Fayette County during his thirty-four-year term. Ironically, information gathered via The Chicken Ranch had helped solve many of those cases. The double standard is alive and well in America.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas runs through June 29 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. There are adult language and situations in the show – use your own judgement about bringing children under 12. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003