Austin Playhouse, through July 2
Somewhere in the middle of Texas, there once was a house called the Chicken Ranch, where there was a lot more than eggs getting laid. For nearly 70 years, local authorities turned a blind eye to the illegal brothel, which wrangled up sex far and wide until a Houston aiii-witness reporter with a shifting toupee and yellow-tint aviator glasses decided to do an exposé. Like moths to a flaming prostitute, Bible thumpers were attracted to the bordello and pushed gun-toting politicians to shut her down. Sounds like a kooky plot to a Texas-wild musical, doesn't it? It may not be news to native Texans, but Larry L. King and Peter Masterson whipped the Chicken Ranch story into a song-and-dance show not long after the real war of the whores transpired in the Seventies.
King and Masterson took a little artistic license with the tale: changing the name of TV reporter Marvin Zindler to Melvin P. Thorpe, for example, and adding a love story and a coming-of-age story, to boot. And they set it all to music, which certainly turned the factual calamity into borderline farce. But there ain't nothin' like a ho'-down, and Austin Playhouse's production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas draws the audience to her big friendly bosom.
It's a Texas-sized musical on the company's modest-scaled stage, which looks like an open barn with a lone star center stage. It leaves numbers such as "Twenty Fans," which describes a turning fan in the ladies' rooms, to the imagination. But what director Don Toner doesn't pony up for the set, he spends on shining actors. More than 20 performers deliver the 15 numbers, and all of them poke fun at Texans laying down anything but the law.
Boni Hester plays Miss Mona, the girls' manager, who seems to go with the theme of modest-sized, punch-packing force that goes with the production. She's a ringer for Patsy Cline with a cherubic country voice, taking the role with the sapience of a mother hen. Opposite her, Ev Lunning plays the hot-headed sheriff, and it's clear that no one can build up seething steam quite like him. The back row is sweating, and not just from his performance alone. Jacqui Cross comes into the spotlight during the sexiest part of the show, singing with that sultry magnolia voice about making love to her own husband. And let us not forget Brian Coughlin's Melvin P. Thorpe, whose reporting is as sensational as his Elton John-like getup.
Carlos Ferreira's choreography doesn't leave much to the imagination, with boot-scooting and swinging hips within spittin' distance. While the ladies appear as the indecent backdrop to almost every song, there's a mighty fine all-male number in "The Aggies Song." Under musical director Michael McKelvey's wing, the young cast of cowboys and working girls whoop it up one minute and share their souls the next. Together, they give new meaning to "Y'all come back now, ya'hear?"
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