“It was as nice a little whorehouse as you ever saw. It sat in a green Texas glade,
white-shuttered and tidy, surrounded by leafy oak trees and a few slim
renegade pines and the kind of pure clean air the menthol-cigarette people advertise.
If you had country values in you, and happened to stumble upon it, likely you would nod approval and think, Yes, yes, these folks keep their barn painted and their
fences up and probably they’d do to ride the river with.”
— “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”,
Larry L. King, Playboy Magazine, April 1974
Arlington — There’s really only two legitimate reasons these days to stage The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Either you’ve got a powerhouse leading lady who can charm as much as Dolly Parton, iconic in the movie adaptation, or you think the show has something relevant to say about modern day life. I’m sorry to say that Theatre Arlington’s current production of the 1978 musical misses the boat on both accounts, and as such, the show can perhaps best be described as aggressively mediocre.
A rip-roaring musical full of sex, politics, and hypocrisy, with colorful characters and all couched in the poetic language of a Texas native: what’s not to love, right? Adapted in 1978 from journalist (and hard-drinkin’ raconteur) Larry L. King’s 1974 Playboy article about the famed Chicken Ranch brothel of La Grange, Texas, the musical tells the lightly fictionalized tale of the circumstances around the closing of this historic house of ill repute. As narrated to the audience by Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, played by Bob Reed, the Chicken Ranch is an institution just outside the small (and fictional) town of Gilbert, Texas, catering to boys coming of age, locals looking for a reasonably priced thrill, and politicians of every stripe. Reed is the first Equity actor to appear at Theatre Arlington under their new Small Professional Theatre (SPT) contract — the theater has used guest artist contracts before but has just begun a three-year transition to full SPT status.
The house is presided over by Miss Mona Stangley (Mary Gilbreath Grim), whose rigid rules of behavior for her girls and their patrons, along with a healthy number of “donations” to local charitable causes and political campaigns, keep things humming along smoothly until local watchdog reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (Micah Green) reports on the existence of the whorehouse to the public, creating a split between folks purporting to be shocked, simply shocked, at the existence of this den of sin, and those calling out the hypocrisy of the other camp.
In its original run, the musical won two Tony awards (for Best Performance by a Featured Actor/Actress in a Musical, for Henderson Forsythe and Carlin Glynn) and, despite a cool reception from critics, ran for over 1,500 performances at the 46th Street Theatre. “It’s not Shakespeare,” Mr. King commented about the musical he helped create, “but hell, it’s fun.” It was adapted into a 1982 feature film starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. By all accounts King loathed both the final result and the process of filming it, even going so far as to challenge leading man Reynolds to a fistfight on set. (The fight, I’m sad to say, apparently never took place.)
All this foofaraw aside, the fact of the matter is that the musical, despite the inherent flash and dramatic value of the original story, never rises above the level of “fine,” and Theatre Arlington’s current production, directed by Theatre Arlington Executive Producer Steven D. Morris, does little to elevate the material. Grim is perfectly fine as whorehouse General Manager Miss Mona (she dislikes the term “madam”) but she doesn’t exhibit the sort of charisma that would make the character truly compelling. Her big finale number “Bus to Amarillo,” which fills in some of Miss Mona’s background, is well performed but emotionally flat given the circumstances. The lighting cues, which change seemingly at random throughout the number, are also extremely distracting. There’s no particular spark between her and Reed’s Sheriff Dodd, who blusters entertainingly enough through the show’s best dialogue (mostly pulled directly from King’s original piece and peppered with colorful phraseology, to borrow a term), though he underwhelms in the Sheriff’s mournful, “Good Old Girl” in Act II.
There are a few nice comedic moments early on from new girls Angel (Aly Badalamenti) and Shy (Donovan Marie Lawson), though both characters are given sob-story background details (a child left behind with grandparents, parental sexual abuse) that the piece never bothers to flesh out, and which hit the ear very differently in 2019. Micah Green’s Melvin Thorpe, entertainingly dressed in a style perhaps best described as “Liberace playing a Western used-car salesman” (kudos to costume designer Karen Potter), has the audience in stitches with his over-the-top performance as the crusading “watchdog.” As one of the few side characters to get a number to herself, Patrice Tilley does good work singing the plaintive though unimaginative “Doatsey Mae." And Daniel Hernandez’s slippery Governor has probably the funniest moment of the night with his soft-shoein’, question-dodgin’ “The Sidestep,” a masterpiece of political evasive maneuvers, and one of the better numbers in the show.
Music director Mark Miller, on triple duty as director, conductor, and keyboardist, keeps things moving along at a good clip despite the lackluster material; I especially enjoyed Emily Goodyear Klophaus on the fiddle. However, there were some balance issues with the sound at the performance reviewed (Saturday night on opening weekend), notably in the first ensemble number “Prologue/20 Fans,” in which the offstage ensemble was nearly drowned out by the onstage musicians. There were similar issues throughout the night. Choreographer Lori Woods Blondin, overheard in the audience commenting approvingly about her Aggies “kicking in time” that evening, clearly knows her stuff, though the performances are at times rough and a little lacking in energy. I’ve already mentioned costume designer Karen Potter’s work, but she deserves further credit for the '70s-infused fashions overall, and Miss Mona’s wardrobe in particular: a black-and-gold lamé dress and a slinky blue sequined gown are particular favorites.
There are some shows that simply have a shelf life; I fear Best Little Whorehouse may be past its “sell by” date. That being said, Theatre Arlington’s audience seemed to enjoy the show, and there was talk of a Broadway revival as recently as 2015. But I think it’s fair to say that Theatre Arlington’s current production hasn’t found any new key to unlock hidden potential in this subpar musical.