The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Faires, October 1, 1999, Arts

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: Down-Home Gusto

Paramount Theatre,

September 11

Running Time: 2 hrs, 20 min

Either you can laugh about prostitution or you can't. Either you can laugh about Christianity or you can't. Either you can laugh about Texas or you can't. If you can't laugh about one or more of these topics -- and this is not to cast aspersions on anyone who can't -- but if you can't laugh at them, it's hard to picture you having a very good time at Broadway's version of the Chicken Ranch.

This show, after all, is a musical comedy that makes heroines out of whores and finds humor in the sex trade, mocks the piety of Baptists and other true believers, ridicules our state government and other institutions, and pretty much uses the Lone Star State flag as boudoir linen on which to do the dirty deed. And it makes no apologies for its bawdy, brazen, irreverent point of view. Book writers Larry L. King and Peter Masterson and composer Carol Hall have gone for this material whole hog, and if any of it rubs you the wrong way, you're not likely to get rubbed right 'til the curtain comes down.

If, however, the subject matter of this unlikely Seventies success does not rub you the wrong way, you're likely to find your trip to the Chicken Ranch a down-home pleasure. For in translating the tale of the legendary La Grange bordello into the stuff of Broadway, King has been able to slather on the salty Texas colloquialisms and prickly political satire like an enthusiastic chef dressing up his barbecue with sauce. Many of the lines are thigh-slappin' funny, and even if it's occasionally exaggerated, he gets the sound and rhythms of Texas talk dead-on perfect. It's us up there, proud and loud and sassy and crude, with next to nothin' held back.

Because the show is so unapologetically what it is, the only way to make it work onstage is to throw it up there with the same kind of whole-hog vigor that the creators put into the script. Not surprisingly, Austin Musical Theatre gave its Whorehouse just that kind of full-tilt gusto, and it put the show over with a bang. Director-choreographer Scott Thompson proved himself just as comfortable and capable with rural gags and country dancing as he has the cosmopolitan material of AMT's previous efforts; the dance numbers had an easy flow to them -- a little more relaxed, maybe a little less Broadway -- and the show overall had the feel of a country Sunday: purposeful but in no hurry, a day with its own laid-back pace. No doubt the cast of seasoned pros helped foster that calm and assured quality. Paty Lombard's Miss Mona held the stage with utter confidence and the poise of a beauty queen. William Hardy's Ed Earl Dodd evoked the same craggy appeal that made Spencer Tracy such a joy to watch; under his thatch of snowy-owl hair, his creased face could beam with a smile as broad as the Pedernales, then suddenly collapse into a hilariously cloudy mass of wrinkles and eyebrows. Robert Fitch made for a giddy marionette of a Governor, side-steppin' with such a bright bounce in his step he seemed lifted by strings. In the role of Chicken Ranch housekeeper Jewel, powerhouse singer Jacqui Cross took the sexy number "24 Hours a Day" and with her glorious gospel voice and charisma practically wrapped the entire show around it. And what a treat to see AMT co-founder Richard Byron cut loose as

Melvin P. Thorpe, the priggish, self-important "crusading" journalist who did to the Chicken Ranch what the whorehouse customers typically did to the "working girls" there. His tower of white hair, bulging eyes, and "mad dog" howl made Thorpe the buffoon he deserves to be.

In the hands of these pros and the others who worked on this production -- in the cast, on the design and technical teams, and providing support -- The Best Little Whorehouse got all the TLC it could have wanted. And with that caveat that your mileage may have varied, that gave us one awful fun roll in the hay.

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