By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI. – January temperatures rarely rise above 30 degrees here, so indoor activities are welcomed. Local theatergoers can watch a foot-stompin,’ whooping and hollering Texas hoedown in the 1970s musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, courtesy of Bombshell Theatre Co.
This theater company is devoted to bringing little-seen musicals to our area, and its past productions include Funny Girl (long before the current Broadway production was announced), Bubble Boy and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
While Chitty was advertised as family entertainment, Whorehouse is definitely for adults. Overall, the whole enterprise rarely goes beyond PG-13, although a few visuals about this real-life Texas brothel leave little doubt about what is going on there.
The folksy charm of Whorehouse is immediately underscored by Katie Meylink’s set. Twin building facades on either side of the stage are adorned with overhead clothes lines that seem to be decorated by Frederick’s of Hollywood. The outfits worn by the girls who work here are tame by comparison; in the opening scene, they appear in pastel-hued full slips. Eventually, the girls strip down to bras and demure panties (remember, this was before thongs became the norm).
The Chicken Ranch, Known for “One Quick Thrill”
The 100-year-old brothel is located on the outskirts of a small Texas town. It is known as the “Chicken Ranch,” so named for the poultry that was accepted as payment during tough times.
The business is under the proprietorship of Miss Mona (Robbyn Wilks), who started here as one of the call girls. Through the years, Miss Mona has depended on the protection of town sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Bob Benson). Everything seemed to be humming along until this low-key enterprise came under the scrutiny of a crusading TV reporter, Melvin P. Thorpe (Eric Nelson). With the assistance of a robe-clad choir, Thorpe belts out his discovery in the catchy tune, “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It.” This is definitely not news to anyone living within 100 miles of the ranch – especially not the politicians, farmers, businessmen, public servants and, yes, even an entire college football team.
The original Broadway production was nominated for seven 1979 Tony Awards, and won two. The book is by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, with music by Carol Hall. Its first national tour (2001) starred Ann-Margret and Gary Sandy.
The musical eventually was turned into a 1982 film, starring Dolly Parton as Miss Mona and Burt Reynolds as the Sheriff. The Governor was played by Charles Durning, and the cast also included Jim Nabors and Dom DeLuise. Many of the musical’s songs were cut from the film, and a few Parton songs were substituted. The Bombshell production pays tribute to the film in the final scene, as Miss Mona and the Sheriff sing the romantic, “I Will Always Love You.”
A Strong Score Is Among the Show’s Highlights
Happily, the musical is already bursting with great tunes, including “Hard Candy Christmas,” “The Bus from Amarillo,” “Good Ole Girl,” and “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’.”
The last song is delivered with skill and passion by Miss Jewel, Mona’s right-hand assistant (Kathryn Perry). She leaves little to the imagination about what she’ll be doing on her day off.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Shy (Abbi Minnesale), a demure young girl who arrives by bus and teams up with a more knowing companion, Angel (Margaret Teshner). Miss Mona tells them about her house rules and sends them to town for a change of wardrobe. Shy and Angel are so compelling when they are introduced that it’s a shame the musical’s plot doesn’t follow them more closely.
In any case, there are many more characters to introduce. Eric Nelson turns Melvin P. Thorpe into a hilarious, over-the-top news anchor, complete with a Beatles haircut and fringed suit coat. He seems to turn up everywhere, despite the efforts of Sheriff Ed Earl. It isn’t long before the TV coverage gets the attention of the local Senator (nicely done by veteran actor Michael Pacaro), and even the Governor (Tim Albrechtson, Bombshell’s co-founder). Also in over-the-top mode, the governor delights with his sly tune, “The Sidestep.”
The Bombshell production features canned music (under the Music Direction of Tracy Garon).
A sweet interlude is offered by local café waitress Doatsy Mae (Jennifer Larsen). Doatsy seems invisible to her clientele, who gather to strategize about the dust-up over the Chicken Ranch. Unseen and unheard, Doatsy Mae pours coffee and offers breakfast. Her plaintive solo reveals a “respectful” woman’s unfulfilled dreams. Although Larsen is a terrific singer and actor, adding some stage business to her song (such as wiping down tables, or setting out washed glasses to dry) would have enhanced the number even more. Too many of the show’s ballads feature one or two actors just standing there, singing.
Here Comes the Winning Football Team
The pace quickens when the Aggies football team beat their rivals and board a bus for the Chicken Ranch. As per tradition, the Senator (a former Aggie) foots the bill, and the call girls must dress for the occasion in hilarious prom outfits with white sashes.
Decked out in cowboy hats and boots, the Aggies have time for a two-step in the college locker room before continuing to dance inside Miss Mona’s lavish parlor. Choreographer Sara-Lynn Evenson no doubt had her work cut out for her, but the Aggie boys dance impressively. Occasionally, the dance scenes overpower the small stage, and dancers spill out into the aisles.
With all its mingling storylines, the show finally focuses on the longtime attraction between Miss Mona and the Sheriff. Robbyn Wilks and Bob Benson make a believable couple, despite the fact that the foul-mouthed Sheriff is unable to share his feelings with her. It isn’t until Miss Mona prepares to leave town that the Sheriff finally confesses how he feels about her. Both of these actors display strong, fine singing voices.
This heartwarming show is directed by Bombshell Co-founder Eric Welch. One of the production’s strong points is that the cast is credibly youthful, particularly among the call girls and football players. This show offers much more than a chance to see some talented local actors. Welch brings the best out of his cast, and the result is a high-energy, polished performance that audiences will remember long after the winter thaw.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas continues through January 15 in the Maria Eichmann Studio Theater at Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove, Wis. The intimate theater seats about 100 people, and a number of the performances are already sold out. Patrons are not required to wear masks, but mask-wearing is encouraged. The show runs 2 hours, 45 minutes. For tickets, go to www.bombshelltheatre.org.