For as long as I can remember, which these days seems to be a significant number of years, Le Petit Theatre’s (LPT) season opener has been a splashy, jazzy, audience-pleasing musical. The 91st premier offering is no exception. The Larry King, Peter Masterson, and Carol Hall collaboration of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is sure to please regular theatregoers and just might attract a neophyte or two to the local scene.
Co-directed by Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey, with musical direction by Franklin, Whorehouse is filled with country music, a generous amount of dance numbers and poignant scenes marked by cursing, political pontificating, reminiscences and exaggerated flirtations. LPT handles it all both tastefully and tantalizing against a two-tiered, highly functional set ringing in rich red and gold.
The musical version of a fact-based article first run in Playboy Magazine some 25 or so years ago, Whorehouse looks into life at a Texas brothel, affectionately known as the Chicken Ranch. Melvin P. Thorpe, a Houston investigative television reporter literally shines a light on the ranch, uncovering and embarrassing political powerhouses, who are on a first-name basis with the working girls and their Madame Miss Mona. Political pressure prevails, naturally, and the ranch is forced to close.
Most people are sad to see the doors close. That’s the dilemma of conscience that makes Whorehouse a great show. You might not approve of prostitution, especially when elected officials are protecting and utilizing the house, but you sure as heck don’t approve of investigative journalism causing a ruckus and interrupting the livelihood of working girls. Shine that light on war, poverty or bribery – not the pathetic girls trying to eek out a living in, for them, a safe environment.
Karen Hebert’s characterization of Miss Mona elevates the ethical tug of war with a mature pathos invoking admiration for her character’s composure and occasional amounts of tenderness and concern. Hebert, who also choreographed the show, has a lusty, husky – but not overbearing – voice that comes across clear and crisp. While her dialogue is not as powerful as her musical numbers, she makes a good southern Madame with a “women can do anything” message. Her presentation of “Bus From Amarillo” near the end of the show is strong and moving.
Hebert may be the show’s main attraction, but my favorite is Dane Rhodes, taking on several roles including a Texas Governor valiantly trying to avoid any knowledge of the chicken ranch. His interpretation of “The Sidestep” is an audience favorite. Rhodes dances, sings and delivers his political jabberwocky with excellent timing for one of the most energetic performances in the production. As local businessman C.J. Scruggs, his one-punch lines are as powerful as the red plaid coat and red pant coats that make him stand out on stage.
I was also impressed with the work of Richard Hutton a Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, whose constant cursing adds fuel to the fire of Thorpe’s investigative reporting. He was not only well cast – he does remind you of a small-town sheriff (not the Mayberry kind, however), but his musical presence is a significant contribution to the overall production. His one main number, “Good Old Girl,” is a show highlight.
Similarly, Lara Grice as country diner worker Doatsey Mae shines in her one number “Doatsey Mae,” reflecting unfulfilled dreams. It’s a poignant number that again illustrates a dilemma between taking a risk or going for the sure thing.
Kristopher Lloyd Shaw is also notable as Melvin P. Thorpe, with an excellent voice and on-stage presence exaggerated by his outlandish hair and sequined “cowboy” suit – mimicking the original reporter who exposed the chicken ranch.
I also enjoyed Joan Spraggins, brothel housekeeper and owner of the production’s best musical numbers, “Twenty-four House of Lovin’.” I found the delivery extremely loud, but this is the song filtering through my head off and on throughout the day after the show.
Then again, “The Aggie Song,” and boot-stomping dance number is also fun to watch. The Aggie boys who are treated to a night at the ranch for beating the Longhorns, include Gary Gillen, Matius Grau, Jeremy Horowitz, Clayton Mazqué, Joshua Peterson, Scott Sauber and Christopher Woods. You don’t have to look twice to know these guys are not football players, but their dancing and singing reflects strong bodies, in good shape and with excellent coordination. “The Angelette March,” featuring the female chorus is well-worth applause despite a few strained expressions obviously reflecting the difficulty of the number.
I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with a set at Le Petit. The Whorehouse set is sparse, enriching the action with ample room for dancing and strutting. Short scenes in the diner or sheriff’s office, for example, add just enough to enhance the plot. The band’s sliding platform, which melts into the background or moves forward as necessary is also effective along with the two moving staircases framing the stage. Earl Lennie’s choice of bright white spotlights not only showcases featured performers but is also mindful of the harshness of brothel life.
Costumes by Carolyn Barrois and Regina Schlotzhauer, with Hebert’s costumes by Ray Haylock and Linda Fried, are interesting – tacky to remind you that you are not on a southern plantation, but glittery and sparkly to be attractive. From lingerie to eveningwear, Miss Mona’s girls are dressed in a wide array of fashions giving each girl an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Hair and make-up by Brian Peterson also reflects individual personalities among the girls – and Hebert’s red coifs accentuate her pale complexion and set off her features.
If you like country music, be sure to get to your seat early. The orchestra, under the direction of Adam Bellard, is on stage and playing strong long before the first line.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is as relevant and as entertaining today as it was when first introduced. If you haven’t seen the show in a while, or if you’ve never seen it, LPT’s production is the one to see.
Back Row Facts
Length of Play – two and a half hours including one 20-minute intermission. The show I saw did not start on time.
Language and Lewd Factor – it’s a whorehouse setting, so don’t expect anything different. Cursing, cursing, cursing, and suggestive movements.
Family Fitness – teens and up will enjoy the show. Use your judgment as to what will offend or shock.
It’s a puzzlement! Recent print articles and LPT’s season brochure indicate reduced parking rates at the Jax Brewery and Omni Royal Orleans Garage with a validated parking ticket and space availability. On the night I attended, The Jax Brewery lot attendant had no knowledge of the arrangement and was not too pleasant in acknowledging her ignorance.