Theatre Review: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Intended for mature audiences, SRO Theatre Company’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, opened this past weekend.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas premiered on Broadway in the late 1970s and is based on the real Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas. The brothel, which accepted chickens as well as money for payment, operated for nearly a century until an investigative journalist and TV personality, Marvin Zindler, led the campaign to close it.
The show follows that premise very closely. Twenty Fans, the opening number, recounts the history of the Chicken Ranch. Immediately, we meet two young girls, Angel and Shy, ready for jobs at the brothel. After Mona, the owner, details the rules of the house and introduces the other girls, the new ladies are welcomed into the family. Soon after, Melvin Thorpe who caricatures Zindler as a clown-like self-righteous fanatic with a cult-like following, declares war on the Chicken Ranch during this evening news segment. People still patron the Chicken Ranch; the state’s acceptance seems mixed, but the political ensnarements eventually turn it to an obvious and slow euthanization of the famed bordello.
Spectacular songs are sprinkled throughout the vapid plot. The music stands out. Bryan Babcock beautifully plays piano and directs the band which consists of Joe Bolzenius (guitar), Randy Hawkins (bass guitar), Daniel Kozlowski (drums), and Jordan Shear (violin). His work as music director truly shines as well. Group numbers and their belting harmonies make this show worthwhile, especially “The Sidestep.” Christina Turner’s powerful and soulful “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’” makes me wish her character sang more songs in this show. Amanda Cawthorne’s detailed choreography adds much to the numbers, particularly with the impressive “Aggie Song,” which may be the best number in the whole show.
While the music centers the performance, often the band seems to overpower the singers. Sometimes dialogue or recorded voiceovers happen to live music, rendering anything spoken incomprehensible. “The Angelette March” sticks out as an example. I fear imperative plot points may evaporate due to these microphone glitches. Hopefully, these issues can be worked out before next weekend, but working microphones cannot fix an inherently flawed and frustrating script.
The principle problem with Whorehouse is the lack of conflict. The audience is expected to feel for Mona and the bordello while rooting against Melvin Thorpe and the rest of his watchdog gang, but little character development makes this impossible. A lot of potentially important moments swiftly shift to minutia: the discovery of Angel’s baby, Doatsy Mae’s reflective song, and Shy’s past. It is as if the writer wanted to incorporate several points surrounding women and then wrote the script in a connect the dots fashion around those thoughts. Issues and characters are introduced and never or rarely mentioned again. It’s confusing writing.
Far too much time of the first act is devoted to introducing Shy and Angel. One expects the story to center on them and their development or growth—a sort of modern Millie or Sweet Charity feel; however, the central concern (for the first act) remains the titular subject, which makes sense, if we cared. The second act changes to focus on a quasi flirtation and non-existent relationship between Mona and the sheriff, which strives to create a sentimental human feel to the Chicken Ranch’s demise, but only awkwardly slows down a show with drawn-out pacing.
Ensemble numbers and the music in this show are great fun. A pace that tarries coupled with an ambiguous and not justified protagonist make this a long evening at the theater.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas runs until June 9 at Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Fri. & Sat. at 8 pm; Fri. at 10:30 am; Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets $20; seniors $17 and students $10. More information can be found online at www.srotheatre.org.