‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’

Stars in the Park has a revival of this musical at Kelsey Theatre.

By: Stuart Duncan
   Way back in 1840, the locals of LaGrange, Fayette County, Texas, founded a sort of family brothel. It had a long, mostly uneventful life until it ran into a decidedly religious-right backlash, mounted by a Houston radio personality in the early 1970s. He exposed its existence and then proceeded to put pressure on any politico he ran across to have it shut down. As many took up the cause (including some who have visitation rights) the site fell into disrepute and finally was shuttered in 1973.
   Through the years, however, it took on legendary proportions and a new name. During the Depression years, the brothel accepted poultry as payment for the "services" provided. Hence the house became known as "The Chicken Ranch." Hen houses were built "out back" and eggs were sold. All this was perfect fodder for a musical. Larry King and Peter Masterson wrote the book, Carol Hall wrote the music and lyrics, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas opened at Actors Studio in New York in October 1977. It moved to Broadway after the first of the year, where it ran 1,584 performances — more than four years.
   A nationwide tour starred Ann-Margret and was noted most for the fact that she wore a new gown designed by Bob Mackie each time she walked on stage. A movie version followed, starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, and apparently wasn’t noted for much of anything. The latest revival by Stars in the Park at Kelsey Theatre on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor really is more fun than either the revival or the film. Director Diane Wargo, helped by musical director Pat Masterson (no relation to the book writer) and choreographer Jacqui Mihalik, has treated the show as bawdy satire and the large company clearly is having a ball with the concept.
   And what a delicious company: three dozen and more are headed by newcomer Lunda Cornelius, who plays Miss Mona, the proprietress of the Chicken Ranch who started at the bottom as "one of the girls" and arched her way to the top. She has a long and distinguished bio, including leading roles in opera, and easily handles the rather tricky songs and suggestive dialogue. Moreover, she plays the role with the hint of suggestion that she might just have worked in this line of business before. My own particular favorite moment is when she sings "Girl You’re a Woman," although she also brings tears to the eyes late in the evening with "Bus From Amarillo." Funny, I remember that song as coming much earlier in the Broadway production.
   John Shanken-Kaye, who grows more impressive with each show, is terrific as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, showing a soft spot for Miss Mona without ever allowing his bluff exterior to be penetrated. The two have some wonderful chemistry in their scenes together. Keith Nielsen has two opportunities to show his particular brand of zaniness; once as Miss Wulla Jean, in a flashback to the former Ranch matron, and later as Melvin P. Thorpe, the Bible-thumping crusader with an attitude.
   Kyla Mostello also has a couple of opportunities to shine; first as a co-narrator with Luddy Iezzo and later in a lovely moment as the local waitress, Doatsey Mae, who wonders if life might just have passed her by. But the best in this show is saved till almost last: Ray Murphy as the Texas governor who arrives to do "The Sidestep," a little ditty that pretty well sums up his political agenda as well as his established technique for dealing with any problem. He steals the show and the audience lets him know it.
   Meanwhile the girls appear in various almost-dressed outfits and the guys show up in football gear, mostly as Texas A&M players. What passed three decades ago for raunch seems a bit mild these days, but director Wargo and the troops have plenty of fun on hand. Why should the children have all the fun? Leave them home.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas continues at Kelsey Theatre, Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, through Feb. 26. Performances: Sat. 8 p.m. Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets cost $16, $12 seniors, $10 students/children. For information, call (609) 584-9444. On the Web: www.kelseytheatre.net