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Incline’s “Best Little Whorehouse’s” Guilty Pleasures Are Mostly Innocent

Review by Doug Iden of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: Incline Theatre

In rural, central Texas in the 1970’s, anything goes – as long as the locals can enjoy it but pretend it isn’t there.  Consequently, set amidst a conservative Bible Belt community, sits a “house of ill repute”, euphemistically called the Chicken Ranch because poultry would be accepted for payment during the Depression.  Not standard fare for a Broadway musical.

This is the setting for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,  now playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.  The play is an interesting combination of rambunctious, raunchy, funny and savagely satirical bits but, at its heart, it is a bitter sweet love story about Texas written by composer-lyrist Carol Hall.  Most of the music is rousing, story-telling, Country and Western fare interlaced with some very poignant and moving songs.

The Chicken Ranch actually existed from the 1840’s until 1973, when the brothel was finally closed by a publicity driven televangelist Marvin P. Thorpe, played unctuously by Aaron Whitehead.  The satire emanates from the ambitious and oily manner of the “watchdog” and the complicit state leadership led by shifty Governor Briscoe (Dan Doerger).

The play opens with the roaring song “20 Fans” sung by the Bandleader (Nicholas Brown) and the “girls” describing the need to “cool down” the feverish activity inside.  Two women, Angel (an experienced pro played by Caroline Grace Williams) and novice Shy (Laura Wacksman)) apply for a job.  Then we are introduced to the Madame Miss Mona, portrayed by Lesley Hitch, in the song “A L’il’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place,” where Mona explains the rules that all the women must follow.  The challenge in this play is to create audience empathy for the illegal and immoral activities of Miss Mona and her group.  This is accomplished through her strict rules of conduct (“there’s nothing dirty going on”), her ability to create a safe family of misfits, and the hypocrisy of self-serving politicians and would-be journalists.  Other members of the Ranch are Keri Baggs, Heidi Olson, Cassidy Steele, Annabel Forman, Emma Moss and Sarah Willis.

Early on, we see the compassion which Mona shows to her troop when she catches Angel using the telephone (a major rule violation) to talk to her son.  Mona forgives the transgression.  Hitch effectively plays Mona as a strong, no-nonsense, pragmatic businesswoman who believes that she is providing a valuable “service” to the locals while protecting and guiding the women. 

The satire blossoms when Thorpe leads his choir and fellow evangelists in the lively songs “Watch Dog Theme” and “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It,” always in front of television cameras. Early in the second act, the Governor performs “The Sidestep” which savagely castigates the hypocritical manner in which he avoids the controversy.  Doerger’s dance routine further demonstrates his ability to “sidestep” the issue.

A highlight of the show is the “Aggie Song” in which the Texas A&M football seniors are annually rewarded by going to the Chicken Ranch for Thanksgiving.  The Aggie chorus line (Cade Harvey, Cian Steele, Liam Sweeney, Michael Wright Jr and Jesse Lawrence) “romp and stomp” with cowboy boots on their feet and various stages of undress above while they contemplate the miles ahead “before we get to heaven”.  This is punctuated by a clever prop by set designer Brett Bowling, which shows a gridiron on the outside (while snippets of a football game play on a video screen above) and then opens into the Aggie locker room.  This is a high-energy, rip-roarin’ dance number with echoes of the Rockettes. 

The pervasive rambunctiousness is offset by several poignant moments.  Café owner Doatsey Mae Grimes (Helen Anneliesa Raymond Goers) longs for a different life in the soliloquy “Doatsey Mae” in which she is “day by day respectable” but wants something more, hopefully with Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Rick Kramer). During the song, she shadow-dances with a beautiful vision of her dream (Heidi Olson).  Kramer also sings well in his only solo song, “Good Old Girl”. Also effective at softening the tone are the plaintive numbers “Hard Candy Christmas,” sung by the girls, and “Bus From Amarillo,” sung by Hitch.

There is a lot of excellent dancing in this show, due primarily to Director/Choreographer Jay Goodlett, who attended CCM and performed ballet in many venues including the Cincinnati Ballet.  His influence is readily apparent in the numerous dance routines. In addition to those mentioned before, the Ranch-women perform several sexy, erotic dances in the opening three numbers.  All of the dancers perform well.  It’s good to see the Incline (and the Covedale) try more difficult and involved dance routines. 

Bowling’s primary set is a static view of the inside of the Chicken Ranch, with stairways leading to a number of rooms on the second floor.  The women enter and leave the stage through these doors.  One very effective scene combines the set with lighting designer Denny Reed’s appropriate red lighting, allowing a “see-through” image into the rooms where we see hands and arms moving while the Aggies are entertained.  Reed also designed moving lights when the Ranch is invaded by Thorpe.  As usual, Caren Brady’s costumes run the gamut from Western business cowboy gear, to standard uniforms for the waitress and the Sheriff, to sexy lingerie worn by the women. 

This show is one of those guilty pleasures with a mix of comedy, hijinks and sadness.  So grab your chicken legs and “romp and stomp” on down to the Incline for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, running through April 7.