So, get your boots on, and get to knockin’ boots at the Chicken Ranch at Theo Ubique Cabaret.

By: Dec. 17, 2022
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It's just a "lil' ole bitty pissant country place"... but it is certainly something to see! Theo Ubique's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a rollicking good time filled with political upheaval, heartfelt moments, and some of the best choreography I've seen in community theatre to-date (major kudos to choreographer Jenna Schoppe). Made famous by the 1982 film featuring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, this musical is less of a celebration of the libertine than it is about the perils of hypocrisy, especially where the "moral majority" is concerned.

Based on the true story of the Chicken Ranch boarding house in central Texas, this musical imagines how this brothel operated - and how it was ultimately shut down due to sensational journalism and politicians under pressure from an outraged public. Importantly, it also shines a light on some of the tragic reasons why women may choose the path of sex work and humanizes this often-shamed group of people, prostitutes being "some of sweetest people I've ever known," as Dolly Parton reflected in the making of this film.

We get introduced to the history and surprisingly proper rules of the famed Chicken Ranch as two young women enter the scene looking for work. The pair come from contrasting backgrounds, as Angel (Chamaya Moody) is a veteran and the appropriately named Shy (Michaela Shapiro) is just getting her feet wet in the world's oldest profession. Shapiro's delivery of Shy's character arc is particularly captivating, as she shows us how innocence, resilience and resourcefulness can all result in one hell of a strong woman. Lil Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place is the first big company number, filled plenty of hip-thrusting girls in skimpy lingerie. If any conservatively minded members of the audience have reservations about the show, this feel-good country number is sure to make them feel right at home.

The star of the evening is undoubtedly Anne Sheridan Smith, holding court as the Mother Hen of the Chicken Ranch, Miss Mona. Their deep, rich voice captivates the audience, especially in the tear-jerker Girl You're a Woman. Though I'm pleased I had the chance to see Smith's fabulous performance as Lady Aggravarian in Theo Ubique's Once Upon a Mattress, the role of Miss Mona truly brings out their star power. Bravo!

Miss Mona's right-hand woman Miss Jewel is played by the powerhouse Cynthia F. Carter. With a soulful voice and a belt to match, Carter brings the house down in Twenty-four Hours of Lovin' - a celebration of the joys of sensuality, refreshingly from the female perspective. Smith and Carter have excellent stage chemistry as business partners in the Ranch and play off each other like sisters.

As a proud Longhorn and recent transplant from Texas myself, the fact that a central plot point in this show is the (now defunct) famous UT - A&M Thanksgiving football rivalry warmed my heart (and subsequently broke it when the Aggies emerged victorious- but I suppose that's a personal problem). The Aggie Song is a fun, stomping number poking fun at the sex-starved, macho underclassmen on their way to celebrate their victory with the women of the Chicken Ranch. One of my favorite elements of this show is the versatile ensemble, who expertly exchange roles as the ladies of the Ranch, the outraged public, and even the burly football players themselves.

In between scenes at Miss Mona's, a storm is brewing with the public. Sensationalist Melvin P. Thorpe, played by the hilariously over the top David Blakeman, stirs up a proper witch hunt, which is more likely a hunt for higher ratings. Their song Texas has a Whorehouse in It gets the crowd riled up as he parades around in his bejeweled tie and corny self-righteousness. I'm not sure if Blakeman's interactions with the audience were scripted or ad-libbed, but either way, they are comedy gold.

Following in Thorpe's wake are a stream of politicians, all played by one incredibly talented Teddy Gales. From the Tums-clutching nervous Mayor, to the back-slapping Senator, to the sidestepping Governor, Gales gives a unique life to each of these comically hypocritical "leaders." Though the characters are as written are shallow and predictable, they unfortunately capture the essence of many of our yellow-bellied politicians to this day. Gales kept the audience in stitches with his uncanny mastery of different voices and mannerisms that he was able to apply to each of his characters.

Stuck in the middle of the scandal is the hot-headed, yet ultimately cowardly, Sheriff Dodd. Marc Prince's portrayal of this complex man is nuanced and thoughtful as he's torn between his loyalty to Mona due to their shared history and his duty as an elected official. As mounting pressure from politicians and petitions from the public grow, Prince brings his inner turmoil to life in a gradual but believable way.

Speaking of petitions, if one exists to add Hard Candy Christmas to all holiday playlists, then put my name down! This bittersweet number sung by all the Chicken Ranch girls has a beautiful swelling melody that is sure to get stuck in your head just as fast as your heart gets stuck in your throat.

The delightful costumes in this musical featured a dazzling array of colorful lingerie, high-waisted country skirts, and even the accurately maroon jerseys of the Aggies (details matter- and costume designer Gregory Graham nailed them). Lighting design by Josiah Croegaert was equally captivating, matching each of the joyful and sorrowful moods in turn. Finally, scenic design made creative use of the intimate space of this theater. Even incorporating the space's bar in the action, Manuel Ortiz brought to life the town of La Grange in all the right ways.

Hats off to Director Landree Fleming for bringing together a story that is more complicated than meets the eye, balancing elements of complete frivolity with those of heartache; proud sisterhood with those of shame and longing. This show keeps an excellent fast pace throughout and keeps the viewer's attention at every turn. Last but not least, the live orchestra is always the crown jewel of any musical - and the 'All hat, no cattle' band is no different! Music director Isabella Isherwood fabulously wrangled and led this ensemble, whose fiddling helped immerse the audience in an authentically Texan atmosphere (and who can resist their western garb, cowboy hats and all? Another shout-out to Gregory Graham)!

So, get your boots on, and get to knockin' boots at the Chicken Ranch at Theo Ubique Cabaret. It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on... or something like that!

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas runs through January 29, 2023. Tickets can be purchased here.


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