Signature Theatre’s revival of the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” does nothing to dispel Texans’ claim that everything’s bigger in the Lone Star State. In fact, sex and hypocrisy seem even more outsized when they’re topped with a few “y’alls” and a lot of boot-scooting.
“Whorehouse” two-steps a line between campy and thoughtful. The story follows events at the Chicken Ranch, a bordello run by former prostitute Miss Mona Stangley (Sherri L. Edelen), as TV crusader Melvin P. Thorpe (Christopher Bloch, basically playing a small-time Rush Limbaugh) tries to shut it down.
“It’s a fun show,” says director (and Signature artistic director) Eric Schaeffer. “But it’s also about how one person started a firestorm and ruined these lives.”
Before the politicos and holy rollers have their way, the show sashays into a world at once naughty and nice. Miss Mona makes her girls live by strict rules — no drugs, no cussing, no tattoos — and comes across as both a den mother and a boss out to make bucks. Relationships, including Miss Mona’s longtime friendship/romance with the local sheriff, end up being as important as their risque business. And what these ladies of the night do to show customers a good time isn’t tame.
“We don’t shy away from the fact that this is a whorehouse,” Schaeffer says. The costumes, for instance, combine cowboy boots and a lot of Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie — “all in red and black, because that spells sex,” says costume designer Kathleen Geldard.
The red-on-redder set contributes to the racy atmosphere. Crimson floors, walls and the staircase are accented by two dozen sets of wall-mounted longhorn horns and second-story, wallpapered cubicles for trick-turning.
“It’s slick and modern,” set designer Collin Ranney says. “We wanted it to feel hot.”
And while it may not be apparent to audiences, “the staircase leans to stage right, to keep it a little off,” he says. “The second level is actually raked, like a ramp, which keeps the dancers off-balance. It’s a whorehouse, so there’s really nothing straight about these people.”
Based on happenings at a real brothel in La Grange, Texas, from the late 1800s to the 1970s, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” enjoyed a successful run on Broadway in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In 1982, it was made into a popular movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.