Spring is upon us in Cincinnati, and that means romance is in the air– though at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, it’s less about true love and more about a quick lay. 1978’s The Best Little Whorehouse In Texashas started its production run there to… *ahem*… serviceaudiences for the next few weeks.
Best Little Whorehousetells the story of the “Chicken Ranch” of Gilbert, Texas. It’s based on a real Texas brothel that operated for decades. In the musical by Carol Hall, Larry L King, and Peter Masterson, Miss Mona Stangley runs the successful sex business with strict rules for the women who work there (no tattoos, no cursing). The Chicken Ranch is basically an institution, and Miss Mona is an active member of the community, despite the nature of her business. Things go bad when TV “newsman” Melvin P Thorpe chooses it as his next target to inflame the community with endless pearl-clutching. Attention and outrage builds, and Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, who’s had a long relationship with Miss Mona, is ultimately forced by the governor to shut the Chicken Ranch down.
The Incline’s production, directed and choreographed by Jay Goodlett, features some very talented women, and that’s not a double-entendre. Leslie Hitch (who stood out to me as Frau Blucher in Covedale’s 2017 production of Young Frankenstein) plays Miss Mona with a balance of authority and warmth that would make Dolly Parton proud. Her comedic timing has always been solid, but her singing talent is something I haven’t had the chance to enjoy before. In songs like “Girl, You’re a Woman,” and “Bus from Amarillo,” she shines. Helping to maintain the Chicken Ranch is Jewel, played by Tia Seay. Her program bio mentions being a classically trained soprano, and her Act I song “Twenty Four Hours of Lovin’” is simmering, sexy, stellar number.
The women who work at the Chicken Ranch have individual moments during the show, especially Angel (played by Caroline Grace Williams) and Shy (Laura Wacksman), but they tend to function as a group. Angel and Shy are new hires and serve as the audience’s point-of-entry to get to know the cast and the rules of the business. All the rest of the working girls, Linda Lou (Keri Baggs), Beatrice (Annabel Forman), Ruby Rae (Emma Moss), Ginger (Heidi Olson), Dawn (Cassidy Steele), and Taddy Jo (Sarah Willis) spend their time entertaining clients, and also singing and dancing all over the stage in various stages of undress. The girls all come off with a great chemistry and camaraderie. In his Director’s Notes, Goodlett also stresses the importance of friendship in this show, and that’s easily recognized in little moments the girls have as they’re singing. Their voices blend well with Carol Hall’s harmonies and they each get a dramatic turn in the classic “Hard Candy Christmas.”
The men in the cast have moments of their own. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more genuinely-sounding-frustrated delivery of the phrase “got DAMN” than by Rick Kramer’s Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. He also gets a nice feature in his stoic rendition of “Good Old Girl.” Gleefully stirring the pot is Aaron Whitehead’s Melvin P Thorpe. Decked out in a sparkly red, white, and blue suit, wearing a ridiculous wig, and flanked by his choir robe-clad supporters, he revels in his glorious purpose of exposing whatever he considers to be wrong for that day’s TV show. Whitehead delivers his messages with a sermon-like sincerity (as long as there’s a camera on him), and plays it to the hilt when singing “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It.”
The show-stopping number, though, is what kicks off Act II. Governor Briscoe (Dan Doerger) is introduced by taking questions about the Chicken Ranch, and his song, “The Sidestep,” is a flagrant indictment of American politics and the media coverage of it. Doerger nearly steals the show in his brief time on stage, dodging questions and avoiding giving an actual opinion, but still smiling for the gathered reporters.
Brett Bowling’s set design is an impressive, two-level look inside the Chicken Ranch. The translucent walls and the posed silhouettes cast on them when members of the college football team pair up with the girls is a nice touch. Other settings like Melvin’s TV studio and the downtown square are built around the static Ranch structure. Helping set the stage when things do change is a large screen in the center.
The costume design by Caren Brady really covers the clothing spectrum. The girls wear various negligees and nighties, though they’re also in tear-away formal gowns, and their own civilian clothes at the end (special shout out to the pantsuit that Angel wears). Thorpe and his crew have their own aforementioned “patriotic” look, along with college football players, various cowboys, and then all the outfits that Miss Mona wears. As the woman in charge of the establishment, you can bet that she’s always dressed to the nines.
In keeping with the Incline’s tilt toward more adult themes, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas features strong sexual subject matter and adult language (just in case the rest of this review didn’t make that abundantly clear). It’s a fun, cheeky show with great songs, and an energetic cast that’ll turn the curtain call into a hootenanny.
The Best Little Whorehouse In Texasis playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theateron Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8:00, and Sunday at 2:00 now through April 7, 2019. Tickets are available by phone at 513-241-6550 or 513-241-6551 or on the Incline Theater’s website: www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/incline