Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!

In all the time I've been working on my book about the Chicken Ranch, I've never talked much about The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Or rather, I haven't written much about it online, because in truth, I've been asked about it plenty. Usually the questions fall into a predictable range, mostly variations on, "Did the madam really look like Dolly Parton?" The answer, for you curious folk, is no, she did not look anything at all like Dolly Parton. More than a few people seem to assume the majority of my book is devoted to that movie, and they ask if I've interviewed Burt Reynolds or excitedly point out that the house used in the movie is actually in Pflugerville, and that a replica was built on the Universal Studios back lot out in Hollywood. Which is all find and dandy, except that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas--the Broadway play and motion picture combined--account for a little over one half of one chapter in the book (chapter 13, if you're keeping track at home. I hope to start writing on that next week, if all goes well).

The reason I devote so few pages to BLWIT in the book is simple: It's mostly irrelevant. At least in a direct sense. If it weren't for the success of the play and movie, the Chicken Ranch would've faded into obscurity long ago, so in that sense the productions are important and very much a part of the overall story. But relevant to the events that happened in 1973 and before? Not hardly.

Even so, I was particularly excited about going to Houston this past weekend, in part, to catch the Theatre Under the Stars production of BLWIT at the Hobby Center. I have to confess here, folks, that although I own the Burt and Dolly movie on DVD, the movie soundtrack and the original Broadway cast recording on CD, plus the Samuel French stage script as well as Larry L. King's The Whorehouse Papers, I'd never actually seen the thing live prior to Saturday. Even though I know the material backwards and forwards, I have to say it was a treat to see it performed live.

For those of you only familiar with the movie version, be aware that the play differs substantially. First of all, the romance between the sheriff and madam that is such a huge focus of the movie doesn't exist onstage. There are hints, and a poignant moment toward the end, but don't expect anyone to start singing "Sneaking Around," an embarrassingly bad number that's thankfully restricted to the movie. Instead, the play gives the audience subplots involving Amber and Shy, two new arrivals at the Chicken Ranch, who serve as the audience surrogates as we're introduced to this little country whorehouse and the various characters connected to it. The play focuses heavily on the hypocrisy at work as the brothel is attacked by moral crusaders, whilst other more crass forms of vice and sexual exploitation are allowed to flourish across the state. The "Aggie Angelettes" sequence--more a direct shot at the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or Kilgore Rangerettes than any pep squad that ever existed at Texas A&M--comes off as bizarre and almost out of place until viewed as part of a thematic whole. Then it seems perfectly logical.

The play, see, is not about the Chicken Ranch, or the actual closing of the brothel, although that provides the skeleton supporting the play. Rather, BLWIT is about the people involved there, from the women who work in the brothel, the madam Miss Mona, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd who protects it, the mayor and townsfolk who are happy enough to support the brothel until media scrutiny turns their way, and the politicians who are happy enough to patronize the brothel one day while condemning it as a moral outrage the next. The narrative serves to present the audience with a series of musical vignettes that are essentially character studies, fleshing out these various types and giving them the illusion of depth and history and dreams even as they unknowingly speed toward an unexpected media circus and everything comes crashing down. For a musical comedy--and the play is incredibly funny--the ending is unmistakeably bittersweet, and several poignant moments between the laughs remind the audience (sometimes uncomfortably) that none of the whores are in their particular profession by choice. At best, the Chicken Ranch represents the lesser of a host of many evils.

From what I know, the TUTS production tracked fairly close to the original Broadway production, although there were enough tweaks and creative arrangements within scenes to keep the show fresh. Several references to the "blue water" of Galveston drew sustained laughter from the Houston audience, as does the Governor when he outlines three things he'll do to shut down the Chicken Ranch en route to an "oops" moment (most of the audience guffawed at the gag, although there were several pockets of offended silence). A live country band, Six Easy Pieces, took the place of the Rio Grand Band from Broadway and kept the music bouncing along nimbly (Lisa Pederson's fiddling on "Orange Blossom Special" prior to the start of the show was a particular treat).

Onstage, Michelle DeJean cut a powerful figure in the role of Miss Mona. Carlin Glynn may have originated the role and won a Tony for it, but DeJean clearly has the stronger singing voice. She projected the necessary hard edge required to be a convincing madam, but at the same time held a certain vulnerability in reserve. The "prostitute with a heart of gold" is a terrible cliche and that holds true for Miss Edna and the Chicken Ranch. Miss Edna was always a businesswoman first, and learned early on not to be suckered by sob stories. At the same time, she knew first hand how hard the life of a prostitute was, so had a great deal of compassion for the women who worked for her. I'm not saying DeJean channeled Miss Edna, but she did bring strength to the character of Miss Mona and kept it from slipping into wholesale cliche (she's also a closer physical match to Miss Edna that Dolly Parton--particularly in the rockin' gold lame pantsuit she opens the show with, but that's neither here nor there).

Veteran stage and screen actor Kevin Cooney played Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, a softer, more approachable version of Sheriff Jim Flournoy, although he did have the swearing down pat. Cooney's timing seemed a little off early on, but by the time he had his big run-in with Melvin P. Thorpe, he was wholly inhabiting the character and on a roll. And speaking of Thorpe, Michael Tapley did a fine job with the Marvin Zindler character, which is easy to overlook because the personality is so over-the-top already. Tapley brings an earnestness to the role--albeit a mindless, self-aggrandizing earnestness--that prevents Thorpe from being a mere mustache-twirling villain. He also gets one of the biggest laughs of the night with a well-placed "Slime in the ice machine!" line, which obviously played well to the home crowd. Tamara Siler, a part-time actress who works a day job in admissions at Rice University, stole every scene she was in as Jewel. And Brooke Wilson and Julia Krohn deserve special mention as Shy and Amber, two prostitutes whose presence did a lot to humanize the play.

The production design and costuming and choreography were all excellent, although there were a couple of moments when the play's forward momentum sagged briefly. "The Aggie Song" sequence was one dance sequence that stood out, not because it was particularly original--I've seen videos of regional productions on YouTube that used the same basic choreography--but rather because it was so professionally and crisply executed. I've seen enough serious dance at Texas State to know that these guys really worked their butts off to nail the routine. All in all, the show was a whole lot of fun. The only real negative, if you want to call it that, was the cancellation of a speaking engagement I'd been invited to present between the matinee and evening performances. The deal fell through at the last minute as these things have a way of doing, but that hardly detracted from my enjoyment of the show. It you get a chance to catch it before the end of its run June 17 at the Hobby Center, I highly recommend you do so. It's not history, but it is entertaining.

Now Playing: Sting Songs from the Labyrinth
Chicken Ranch Central

No comments:

Post a Comment