The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

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Editorial Review

REVIEW: Signature opens with a ho-hum ‘Whorehouse’
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, August 29, 2012

For just a few minutes of sizzling shimmy-and-shake, the naughty ol’ Chicken Ranch way out in the wilds of Gilbert, Tex., manages to get up the proper head of steam. This temperature rise occurs when the ultra-slight musical about the Ranch’s nasty habits, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” suddenly turns its attention to a character named Jewel, the keeper of the brothel books, played on this occasion by the dynamo also known as Nova Y. Payton.

In the single number she’s been given, “Twenty Four Hours of Lovin’, ” Payton shows everyone what a lively joint the Ranch might have been. Possessed of a clarion belt and a sexy confidence in her own sultriness, Payton launches into Jewel’s song -- just one more cog in Carol Hall’s mechanical pop/country score -- with the kind of joy a real musical-theater talent can generate. Singing of the carnal delights in store for Jewel on a day off, Payton -- who thank the stars plays Effie later this season in Signature’s revival of “Dreamgirls” -- seems to wrap her whole being around the song, the way a cleanup hitter puts his entire body into his swing.

And then there are the other 2 hours 14 minutes of “Whorehouse,” a defining entry in the genre of tired businessman’s musical. The show ran for 1,584 Broadway performances between 1978 and 1982, doubtless on the payoff of fetching ladies dancing in their skivvies, and drawling Bubbas stringing together good-old-boy jokes. Now, Signature Theatre has revived the show, and the only connection one feels between it and the company’s history of stretching itself with both new and old musicals is that it provides paychecks to a deserving bunch of musicians, actors and designers.

Let’s hope this foray into pedestrian commercial material is a short detour, and Tony-winning Signature resumes its posture as a platform for promising songwriters and -- even when they are less than fully realized -- worthily novel projects. A distinction should exist at nonprofit theaters between musicals revived because they deserve a second look (think of director Eric Schaeffer’s admirable work on “Chess”) and more mundane vehicles that could just as easily be produced as amateur theatricals.

No oath or protestation to the contrary will convince me that Schaeffer -- who recently guided Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s flawed masterpiece “Follies” to critical Broadway success -- has his heart in “Whorehouse.” His earnest production on the main stage, the Max, isn’t a disaster. It’s just kind of nothing. If a night of theater should aspire to take you on a glorious ride, this one feels more like a trip to the carwash.

Aside from a few vigorous dance interludes, courtesy of choreographer Karma Camp and her assistant, daughter Brianne, the evening is a tepid slog. The incidental plot, revolving around an effort by a sanctimonious television crusader (Christopher Bloch) to shut down the establishment of ill repute long run by Miss Mona (Sherri L. Edelen), doesn’t so much hurtle to a climax as trail off wispily. The uneven book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson shifts in Act 2 to a focus on the ho-hum details of the flirtation between Miss Mona and the town’s ornery though tolerant sheriff -- in an authentically cantankerous turn by Thomas Adrian Simpson.

A few supporting performances do work well, as in the case of a rascally Dan Manning, portraying the state’s slippery governor. (Have the Camps choreographed his amusing cavalcade of mischievous leers?) A number in which Manning is featured, “The Sidestep,” proves a fitting parallel for the impression of Lone Star politicians Kathleen Turner conjures in her show across the river, Arena Stage’s “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” And Tracy Lynn Olivera, playing the wisecracking proprietor of the town cafe, pours the correct amount of acid as she refills the coffee cups.

Not everyone fills the bill. Cavorting on Collin Ranney’s dreary set, the unadorned front room of the brothel, the dewy actresses cast as most of The Girls at Miss Mona’s seem more apt to be the sweethearts of Sigma Chi than ladies of the night, and Edelen, though a robustly comic presence, reminds one more of a schoolmarm than a madam. The talents of accomplished Signature veterans such as Bloch, Stephen F. Schmidt and Amy McWilliams are wasted in excessively cartoonish or merely throwaway roles. Though Matt Rowe’s sound design and music director Gabriel Mangiante’s conducting of the six-member band are commendable, Kathleen Geldard’s costumes lack the sort of personality one might expect from a show at least partly about the art of the come-on.

Every revival can’t be a “Follies,” or, going back a bit further in Schaeffer’s career, his deeply affecting “110 in the Shade.” But lighter fare shouldn’t be so light that it seems to be evaporating, right before your eyes.

PREVIEW: An eyeful of depravity -- if you can stop ogling all the prostitutes
By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, July 29, 2012

For hard-boiled, up-to-the-minute social relevance, a 1978 musical comedy about a “lil’ ole bitty pissant country place” populated by hearts-of-gold hookers might not be the first place you’d think to look. But Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer reckoned that “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” the cheerful fable about zealous media types and hypocritical public officials mired in the sex-scandal tango, still might have a little tread on its tires. Especially in an election season.

“It’s so much more than a light, fluffy show,” Schaeffer says of the musical, which was based on the actual events of a placid little bordello known as the Chicken Ranch (a handle that dated back to the hard times when poultry would be accepted in lieu of cash). The business drew the sudden, inexplicable ire of a Houston TV watchdog. Surely, the ranch’s defenders claimed, the big city’s own streets could have used a little cleaning up. But his public ranting shut the place down for good.

“We have always said that the show is not about prostitution but about hypocrisy,” says “Whorehouse” songwriter Carol Hall. Included in Hall’s “we” are Larry L. King, whose Playboy article was the basis for the musical, and Peter Masterson, co-author of the show’s book with King.

“I think politics is what it is,” says Masterson, who like so many out-of-towners visiting local stages declares that he’s especially pleased to have his puckish work on view in the nation’s capital. “I don’t think it’s changed.”

August is turning out to be the month for Washingtonians to get a little tickled by Texas politics, what with Kathleen Turner as the late sassy columnist Molly Ivins in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” coming to Arena Stage and “Whorehouse” holding forth. The shows figure to be less rabble-rousers than crowd pleasers -- rodeo clowns comically goading a bull.

“There are no great messages in our show, or high-minded preachments, or any of that junk,” King wrote at the end of his cantankerous and funny 1982 backstage memoir of the musical’s genesis, “The Whorehouse Papers.” “It is a show that’s fun for most people who see it, that’s all.”

King would have known. His career as a magazine writer had him covering (and occasionally palling around with) officials; a 1980 collection of his writings is titled “Of Outlaws, Con Men, Whores, Politicians and Other Artists.”

Still, the saga has worked its way fairly deep into the culture. The “scandal” spawned multiple articles and publications, and a new book about the little pleasure palace near La Grange is in the works, according to The Washington Post’s obituary this year of Edna Milton, the last madam of the ranch. The musical ran for nearly 1,600 performances on Broadway and begat a short-lived stage sequel. It also spawned the 1982 Burt Reynolds-Dolly Parton movie that’s a bit hard for Hall and Masterson to talk about. (It’s the source of Parton’s song “I Will Always Love You,” which became a Whitney Houston signature.)

The brothel was even memorialized in one of ZZ Top’s most durable tunes, “La Grange”: “Rumor spreadin’ round/In that Texas town/’bout that shack outside La Grange.”

“I don’t think anybody cares” that the story is actually true, Hall says, even though it was a handful of larger-than-life figures that lured King back to Texas from the East Coast in 1973 to chronicle the strange case of a sudden high-minded brouhaha in the middle of nowhere. The “news” was broken by a TV personality named Marvin Zindler, a self-styled public watchdog whose flamboyant reports of restaurant health violations -- a staple beat of his -- can be dredged up easily on YouTube.

“He took on the case, and he was like a turtle on a finger,” Hall recalls. “They couldn’t shake him loose.”

The frequently bewigged Zindler, who became the outraged, moralistic singing reporter Melvin P. Thorpe in the show, was delighted to attend the musical, despite being the butt of the jokes.

“He came to opening nights and signed autographs and everything,” Masterson says. “He was a lot smarter than he appeared. He was a blowhard on television, but that was an act he was putting on.”

Masterson says he had a hard time persuading the original actor playing Zindler/Thorpe to be as broad as he and King wanted. (The show, believe it or not, began as a workshop of the fabled and intensely serious Actors Studio in Manhattan.) He had an intern assemble a bit of Zindler’s footage at the local CBS newsroom; Masterson says the actor realized of his tasteful portrayal, “I’m not big enough!’ ”

That media lampoon is part of what Schaeffer says he believes endures into the age of blogs and tweets. “People now feel like they can get in other people’s business,” Schaeffer says, putting his concerns about the recent bullying phenomenon in the same category of callousness. “Something may not have anything to do with them, yet they want their opinion known about it.”

“We still have blowhards,” Masterson opines, nominating Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck for the category.

The art of political evasion was neatly distilled in the number “Sidestep,” with a tap dance concocted by the show’s original director-choreographer, Tommy Tune (yet another “Texan domesticated in New York,” to use Hall’s phrase for herself, Masterson and King). Hall’s song features a charming governor wiggling away from sharp questions with a wink and a shimmy that were delivered with joy in the movie by Charles Durning. Any specific model for that sidewinder?

“We all always said that he reminds us of every single Texas governor there has ever been,” Hall says. The name George W. Bush trickles off her lips, and then Hall cackles over Gov. Rick Perry’s notorious “oops” moment while debating last fall, the bit where he promised to eliminate three government agencies but couldn’t remember which ones.

Hall heard through Masterson that Perry’s blunder made it into a production of the show in Houston last month.

“I’m not much for actors making up their own lines,” she says. “But I think I’d make a special exception in that case.”

The real Miss Edna Milton appeared in the original New York production for a period of time. Hall recalls her as “incredibly vulgar and crude, and mad that she couldn’t play the lead.”

“She was helpful with publicity at the time,” Masterson says. “In rehearsal, I had her talk to the girls about the life of prostitutes, and she had a foul mouth. She really did. She would lean over and whisper to me about what the girls oughtta say. I’m sure I turned red.”

This is the aspect of “Whorehouse” that Schaeffer thinks has evolved: the cultural frankness about sex. Signature’s print ads scream the word “Whorehouse” in a skyscraper-size font, but when the show first emerged in New York, newspapers weren’t sure they would print the full title at all.

Masterson adds that AIDS would complicate any attempt at updates, something Schaeffer says isn’t in the works with his staging (which features 24 actors and a country band). But Hall says history isn’t exactly outrunning the show.

“We’ve been known to call each other,” she offers, “and say, ‘Did you read that thing in the paper? It sounds just like one of the songs.’ ”