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September 3, 2012

Signature Theatre revives 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'

There's something very timely and very Texan about the early days of the 2012-13 theater season in the D.C. area.

At Arena Stage, the late, sassy columnist Molly Ivins is being channeled by Kathleen Turner in the entertaining play "Red Hot Patriot." Ivins famously skewered Texas politics in incisive, often hilarious fashion, and applied the same brilliant technique to the national scene (how she would have loved writing about this year's presidential race).

A little ways across the Potomac, Signature Theatre has resuscitated "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," the musical inspired by one of those true, only-in-the-Lone Star State stories -- the campaign to shut down a business that had peacefully catered to the hormonal needs of men for ages.

The show, which opened a long run Broadway in 1978 and was subsequently made into a much less successful film, doesn't necessarily leap to mind as the musical most in need of a revival. As you would expect, though, Signature makes a determined, entertaining case for it.

Maybe it's just me, but a musical that must have seemed like good ol' saucy fun when it was new seems a bit tacky, even cringe-inducing, in places all these years later. Its thickly applied veneer of sentimentality and romanticism doesn't hold up all that sturdily.

You have to set aside any pissant (to borrow a favorite "Whorehouse" word) qualms you may have about lil' ol' things like the exploitation of women.

In the first moments of the musical, you even have to swallow the notion that a farm girl who has run away from a sexually abusive father would head straight and excitedly to sex trade establishment known as the "Chicken Ranch" seeking employment; and that the madam would, in tender, motherly fashion, encourage this particular post-stress therapy.

That said, there's another ...

whole side to "Whorehouse," which is what Signature's artistic director, Eric Shaeffer, found to be a particularly compelling reason for this revival. As Schaeffer, who directs this production, writes in a program note, the show is fundamentally about hypocrisy and holier-than-thou types "who suddenly feel they have the right to tell you what to do and how you must do it."

With so many social agendas being pushed and so loudly these days, "Whorehouse" certainly delivers some contemporary relevance in high-kickin' style. And, boy howdy, some of the characters in this work still seem awfully familiar.

You've got the smarmy, toupee-topped TV personality Melvin P. Thorpe stirring up a bible-thumpin' crusade. When he declares there should be "no exceptions" in condemning certain things that decent, religiously grounded folks find objectionable, that phrase has a particularly fresh bite.

Then there's the terminally folksy governor adept at verbal gaffes ("It behooves the Jews and Arabs to settle their differences in a Christian manner") and prone to side-step every tough issue until pushed into a corner. (In his relatively few minutes of stage time, the governor embodies just about every distinctive trait of stereotypical Texan politicians that Ivins nailed with her prose.)

The lovable madam, Miss Mona, who just wants everyone to have a nice, clean time, and her longtime pal and protector, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, add plenty of spice to "Whorehouse."

It's still possible, though, to wish for more mileage from the book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson. For all of the amusing local color, there are plenty of clunky moments, too.

And although the pleasant songs by Carol Hall contain clever lines and rhymes, many of the melodies tend to sound interchangeable.

Out of this variable material, Schaeffer ensures a generally effective splash of musical theater, with the help of an amiable cast.

Sherri L. Edelen fleshes out the role of Mona in high style (her bosom is almost an extra character). The acting is assured, the singing vibrant and richly nuanced. Edelen provides two of the production's highlights with her stylish delivery of "Bus from Amarillo" and "A Friend to Me" (the song Hall added for Ann-Margret in a 2001 revival).

Edelen is finely matched by Thomas Adrian Simpson as the Sheriff (the two are husband and wife offstage, which no doubt helps the chemistry.) He taps into the character's blustery and soft-hearted sides with equal flair, and he brings considerable vocal charm to "Good Old Girl."

Nova Y. Payton does a star turn as Mona's assistant Jewel; her rich voice and astute phrasing tears up the joint in "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'." Dan Manning chews the scenery delectably as the Governor. And Tracy Lynn Olivera shines as Doatsy Mae, sculpting her eponymous solo song, one of the more distinctive passages in the score, with an affecting naturalness.

The ensemble of hookers and hoofers cavort nimbly through Karma Camp's athletic choreography.

Collin Ranney's two-story, red-saturated set has an oddly antiseptic look that makes the place look rather like the best little chain hotel in Texas.

The production runs through Oct. 7 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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