The company mounts an engaging production of the 1978 Broadway show based upon the legendary Texas ‘Chicken Ranch’
A once-stable Southern town is riven in two by a controversy that has revealed issues usually left unspoken. An official decision has been rendered, leaving equal numbers of people either angry or vindicated. A silver-haired investigative journalist has been probing the case and the story is covered relentlessly, both by mainstream and tabloid reporters.
No, it’s not Sanford, Florida, in the summer of 2013. It’s Gilbert, Texas, the fictional version of La Grange, Texas, where the shuttering of a famed regional brothel, fondly known by all as The Chicken Ranch, spawned national news headlines and sparked a Broadway musical and major motion picture titled The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
An October 1973 Texas Monthly cover story, “Closing Down LaGrange,” written by Al Reinert, centered on the actions that lead to the demise of the “Oldest Continually Operating Non-Floating Whorehouse in the United States.” The article piqued the interest of author Larry L. King — who went on the write the musical with Peter Masterson, with music and lyrics by Carol Hall.
The great majority of the scenes in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas take place in the whorehouse, as befitting the title. Director and choreographer Stephfond Brunson has cast a group of curvaceous local actresses, clad in alluring lingerie, as the residents of the ranch who provide much-in-demand services to a wide range of “guests” — from naïve farm boys to leading politicos. No brothel is complete without its madam, and Stephanie McCall fits the bill as Miss Mona, who cares for her girls with the stereotypical heart of gold. Mona in the film version was none other than Dolly Parton. (The real madam, Edna Milton Chadwell, died last year at the age of 82.)
The hyperbolic subhead of Reinert’s story helps convey the hoopla surrounding the closing the business, which is the story arc for this play: In which the Long Lens of the Law uncovers Sin and Corruption in Babylon-on-the-Brazos, and the Electric Bounty Hunter confronts the Nightmare Sheriff and the Banshee Madam to unearth a Bizarre Tale. The real events and characters are almost too colorful to be believed.
The TV journalist Marvin Harold Zindler was most well known for his weekly restaurant-sanitation expose The Rat and Roach Report before starting his muckraking crusade to shut down the ranch. In the play, he has been renamed Melvin “the Watchdog,” and is played with gusto by Jay Burris. Zindler wore a phony-looking, silver-haired wig and Burris is also coiffed with a garishly ill-fitting head of hair. What makes it especially funny is that his is uncannily similar to the faux Idaho Senator Larry Craig (he of the tapping foot in the airport bathroom stall fame) in the MSNBC parody, The Larry Craig Dragnet Show. (Check it out on YouTube.)
The Watchdog surrounds himself with church gospel choirs as civic back-up in his righteous mission to shut down local prostitution. As seems to frequently be the case with people who engage in overwrought moralizing, Melvin’s evangelical posturing ends up being more prurient and less dignified that Miss Mona, herself. Sympathetic to the madam is the Sheriff (Stephen Gamba) — who has shared some intimate moments with Mona in the past, but who cannot turn a blind eye now that the ranch has been brought into the hell-fire glare of publicity and condemnation.
The male actors have a couple of key scenes as “Aggie Boys” — football players from the local agricultural college who are treated to an annual night at The Chicken Ranch, thanks to a thoughtful endowment by the school’s alumni association. Miss Mona does it up nice, dressing the girls in prom gowns to give the post-football hanky-panky an air of a genteel Cotillion. The football players’ dance number, The Aggie Song, is perhaps the most arresting finger-snapping part of the show.
The original choreography of the Broadway show, which opened in 1978 and ran for 1,584 performances, was by Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh — an Auburn native and one of the original cast members of the landmark musical, A Chorus Line.
The Sidestep, the title of a number performed by the Governor (Tom Briggs) aptly describes what politicians tend to do to get out of trouble. Briggs’ rendition was a nice moment in the second act, but I must admit that I am still in the thrall of the Sidestep song-and-dance performed in the movie version by the indefatigable character actor, the late Charles Durning, which was set in the actual stairwell of the Texas State Capitol. Likewise, I can’t get some other thoughts out of my mind when watching the musical which prevented my completely unreserved enjoyment of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The Chicken Ranch is depicted from a warm, uplifting perspective. It’s a place that has long given sanctuary, and a means of earning a living to, vibrant young (and not-so-young) women. An early scene has two newcomers, Angel (Kate Crawford) and Shy (Kasey McHale), arriving to seek employment as part of Mona’s corral of lovelies. Possible sexual abuse by a father is briefly alluded to and then not brought up again. Is a life of prostitution the helpful response for a girl who has fled her home because of that trauma?
The farewells that unfold as The Chicken Ranch meets its end are touching and heart-rending, epitomized by the beautiful song, Hard Candy Christmas. So caught up are the girls in their sadness about leaving this wonderful life-affirming institution, I was reminded of the final scenes of A League of Their Own — when the members All-American Girls Baseball League had to disband and return home at the conclusion of World War II.
The musical does, unfortunately, put a colorful gloss on what was a houseful of prostitutes in a backwater town. Perhaps the story of a whorehouse is corny and colorful when set in the rural south. Homespun country songs, twangy accents and political shenanigans make a seamy business endearing and amusing. (Musing out loud: Would a raid on a house of prostitution in, say, Brooklyn or South Boston, have also motivated a boisterous, tongue-in-cheek Broadway musical?)
My personal gripes don’t detract from the fact that the current Central New York Playhouse production is an engaging show. The hot weather outside might make Central New Yorkers feel like they are in The Lone Star State. The relatively new theater space in Shoppingtown is cool and inviting — much like Miss Mona’s in her heyday.
Get out of the heat and stop watching the ubiquitous sensationalism of Fox, MSNBC and CNN and learn about another real-life news story, this one now a musical.
What: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, choreographed and directed by Stephfond Brunson.
Who: The Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall
Performance reviewed: July 17, 2013 (final dress rehearsal)
Remaining performances: Plays through August 3
Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission
Tickets: $20 and $25; $39.95 dinner and a show option for Saturday nights only; call (315) 885-8960 or www.cnyplayhouse.com/
Family guide: Action takes place in a house of prostitution