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.
book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, music and lyrics by Carol Hall. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Karma Camp; music direction, Gabriel Mangiante; set, Collin Ranney; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Rowe. With Erin Driscoll, Madeline Botteri, Matt Conner, Stephen Gregory Smith. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 7 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-573-7328. www.signature-theatre.org .