BWW Review: Playhouse's BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE Entertains Despite Lackluster Material
The primary job of any theater critic is to provide a fair, unbiased assessment of the work they see. That's usually an easy feat for yours truly. However, there are times when the topic of conversation is a well-known, often-produced musical with material that is, in my opinion, so weak that the show's popularity is incomprehensible. It's a challenge to be unbiased when it comes to these popular but weak shows like Grease, Cats, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, now playing at The Playhouse through August 7th. Thankfully, this particular production is winner, but the show itself is like a lover who stuffs her bra or his trousers; once you strip away the flash, sizzle, and eye candy on the surface, there's not much to work with underneath.
We'll get to all of the enjoyable aspects of The Playhouse's production in a bit, but first I'd be remiss if I didn't touch upon the unique history of the show, as well as the shortcomings of the material itself. Based on a true story, Best Little Whorehouse tells the story of Miss Mona (Sara Brookes), the proprietress of a brothel named the Chicken Ranch, so named because the girls would accept chicken as payment during the Depression. The Chicken Ranch has served its "guests" for over a century, but when a religious conservative television reporter, Melvin P. Thorpe (David Blazer) tries to shut the brothel down, the local sheriff and Miss Mona's former flame Ed Earl Dodd (Bob Galindo) gets caught in the crosshairs.
The musical--which features a book by Peter Masterson and Larry L. King (not that Larry King) and music & lyrics by Carol Hall-premiered on Broadway in 1978. Directed by Masterson and Tommy Tune and choreographed by Tune and Thommie Walsh, the show was an immediate runaway hit. It ran for 1,584 performances, nearly three times as many as that year's Tony winner for Best Musical, Sweeney Todd. It was nominated for a total of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, winning two. It's worth noting that the original leads, Henderson Forsythe and Carlin Glynn, are responsible for the two Tony Awards won by the original production. You may ask, "How did the two leads from Whorehouse beat out Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, the original leads of Sweeney Todd?" The answer is, they didn't. Whorehouse's producers were smart enough to get their stars nominated in the Best Featured Actor and Actress categories (more on why that was even possible in a bit), knowing that Cariou and Lansbury would more than likely walk away with the Best Actor and Actress trophies, which they did. Since its original Broadway run, Whorehouse has seen a film adaptation starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, a U.S. tour starring Ann-Margret, and a stage sequel.
It was recently reported that a Broadway revival, helmed by director/choreographer Rob Ashford, is in the works. Kristin Chenoweth is in talks to play Miss Mona, and rumor has it that she will share the stage with a bevy of Broadway veterans including Jennifer Holliday, Christopher Sieber, James Naughton, Kerry Butler, and Helene Yorke. The pending revival made headlines for holding a private industry reading, a common occurrence for a new work in development but a rarity for a 38-year-old commodity like Whorehouse.
One would hope that the purpose of the reading was to pinpoint the show's problems, most of which stem from its book. To save the producers the trouble, I've pinpointed many of these problem areas for them:
- The main protagonist and main antagonist never meet.
- The first twenty minutes are spent introducing two characters who are barely seen or heard from again.
- Not one but two of the show's best songs are given to cameo characters.
- Most songs and scenes don't advance the thin plot or develop the weak characters.
- While the goals of the main characters are clear, the motivations behind them are not.
- Of the romantic leads, one has only one song and the other goes a full hour between songs.
- There's almost zero attempt to develop the relationship between the two protagonists/romantic leads.
- The two romantic leads don't have a duet.
- The romantic leads barely have any scenes together.
- Neither protagonist has enough stage time or enough to do (this is exactly why the roles were eligible for Tony nominations in the Featured vs. Leading categories).
- It's a sex comedy/satire with not enough sex, comedy, or satire.
- The climax of the show is a phone call that the audience do not see or hear.
- The show abruptly ends with no real resolution for the two protagonists.
While the material may be flawed, The Playhouse's production is as flawless as it can be. Director David Nanny has done everything humanly possible to distract from the numerous inadequacies of the material. The pacing is brisk, the tone is light, and most characters-even the smallest of cameo roles-are developed more than would be expected, due to the sheer brilliance and hard work of Nanny and his cast. That statement certainly applies to the ensemble of working girls. Each girl has her own personality and charisma, but collectively there's a charming and unexpected sisterhood between them.
Nanny's direction is beautifully supplemented by the rest of his creative team. Lizel Sandoval provides the show with some very lively choreography, often tinged with a touch of sexual innuendo. The set by husband and wife team Steve and Sam Gilliam is stunning yet simple. A maze of stairs, railings, platforms and curtains brilliantly evokes the Chicken Ranch and gives Nanny and Sandoval some exciting opportunities in their staging. It's also a nice touch that the white and burgundy color scheme of the set matches the color scheme of the Russell Hill Rogers Theater. The costumes by Rose Kennedy and wigs by Denise Ebarra are equal parts flashy and tacky, well fitting the 1970s period of the show, and lighting designer Megan Reilly appropriately lights the show in warmer tones befitting both the Texas and brothel setting.
Several performers give star turns in roles with blink-and-you'll-miss-them stage time. Ronald Watson is deliciously slimy as the sidestepping Governor. As the gum-chewing diner waitress Doatsey Mae, Elise Lopez easily vacillates between sarcastic and sweet, and her solo number is performed to perfection. Kass Ortiz and Amanda Tutor make a great comic duo as Miss Mona's newest hires, Angel and Shy, respectively. Ortiz brings a grit and toughness to Angel without making her unsympathetic or off-putting, and Tutor's deadpan delivery as the innocent, virginal Shy gets the biggest laughs of the evening. In their hands, the first 20 minutes of the show are exceptional. As Jewel, Miss Mona's sassy maid, Vicky Liendo brings down the house with her big number, "Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin'." She also manages to develop a believable friendship and comradery with Miss Mona in her very limited time on stage.
Two of the show's three main stars also give outstanding performances. As Melvin P. Thorpe, David Blazer gives us a hilarious interpretation of a God-fearing, fame-hungry villain. It's clear that Blazer's pulling from many real-life personalities in the crafting of his character. There's a little of televangelist Benny Hinn and Donald Trump in there, and while his over-the-top costumes and Captain Kangaroo wig are certainly funny, Blazer never depends on them to get a laugh. Sara Brookes also shines as Miss Mona. She's tough, smart, and feisty with a vulnerability underneath. Brookes manages to make the character more than a standard "hooker with a heart of gold" trope. In her hands, Mona is real, complex, fascinating, and worth twice the stage time she has. Her Patsy Cline-like vocals are icing on the cake, and her closing number "Bus From Amarillo" is triumphantly sung and superbly acted.
The only weak spot of The Playhouse's production is Bob Galindo as Sheriff Ed Earl. With his rugged appearance, he certainly looks the part, and his guitar skills during his only number "Good Old Girl" are worthy of applause. Unfortunately, that's where the strengths of his performance end. Galindo stumbles on his lines and seems to be the type of actor who mistakes brooding for acting and pregnant pauses, grunts, and a John Wayne line delivery for brooding. The pauses are so out of control that they drain the show of any momentum that the hard-working cast has built up. Galindo plays Ed Earl so serious and grouchy that it's hard to say if he understands that the show, his character, and his lines are intended to be comedic. He's trying and I applaud him for that, but if Galindo were to relax, take a more natural approach, and focus on his character's arc and relationships, both he and the show would be more successful.
Still, despite one disappointing performance and a very troubling book, there's plenty to enjoy about The Playhouse's production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The campy, over-the-top farce is wildly entertaining, and overall it's a feast for the eyes and ears.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS plays The Playhouse (800 W Ashby Pl, San Antonio, TX 78212) now through Sunday, August 7th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $12-30. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.theplayhousesa.org
Please note that due to adult language and subject matter, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS is recommended for mature audiences only.