The Naked Truth
Nobody really expects a musical to have incisive dialogue, profound meaning or an interesting plot -- though some of them do. But what a musical really can't do without is music (clever lyrics help, too), and the stuff Carol Hall composed for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is, for the most part, aural wallpaper. At the Buell Theatre, Avery Sommers, as Jewel, deploys her huge, wonderful voice in a musically flat and uninventive paean to "Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin'," and all kinds of talented chorusfolk give everything they've got to utterly forgettable melodies. A couple of numbers are worth the listen: "The Aggie Song" is a hoot, and it's performed with manic energy and precision by a terrific male chorus. The whores' "Hard Candy Christmas" is also pretty good. I liked Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd's "Good Old Girl," too, but Gary Sandy, who plays the sheriff, can't sing, so the tune's wistful strength didn't really come into focus until it was repeated by the chorus.
As for Ann-Margret -- well, her performance is what you were waiting to hear about, right? She doesn't really sing. She sort of smokily breathes out the words, sometimes gathering herself for a tiny little rise up the scale or a throaty climactic belt. She doesn't act either -- a big disappointment for those of us who've admired her performances on the screen. It's possible that her technique is simply too subtle for the stage. At any rate, she sort of poses her way through the evening.
The book tells the story of an actual whorehouse that operated in a small Texas town for over 120 years. It was nicknamed the Chicken Ranch because, during the depression, some of the customers paid in poultry. The place was taken over by Edna Milton (Mona Stangley in the play) in 1952 and achieved huge success. But in 1973, it came under attack by a television crusader who succeeded in getting it shut down -- and who, apparently, still wields his Mrs. Grundyish clout in Texas.
In Whorehouse, these events are handled in broad, cartoonish terms. The musical assumes that Miss Mona is a beneficent employer and that the women of the whorehouse enjoy their work -- despite the fact that (as in historical reality) she takes 75 percent of their earnings, and they are not allowed out into the community. This may have been the case. Prostitutes tend to be women without resources, and the working girls of the Chicken Ranch were kept safe, disease-free and well fed. Whorehouse makes for a somewhat raunchy evening, which -- along with derisive references to "the Jesus crowd" -- may be its saving grace. America needs raunch in these puritanical times, when much of the voting public seems to feel that sexual games with an intern constitute a worse presidential sin than stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Besides, it's kinda nice to see a naked male butt once in a while.
There are some admirable performances in this production. Hal Davis gives newspaper editor Edsel Mackey a weary, seen-it-all intelligence. Jen Celene Little has some great moments of physical comedy as a country girl turned whore, stumble-hopping upstairs in her new sexy gown and clunky cowboy boots. Rob Donohoe gives all kinds of energy to the stereotypical figure of TV zealot Melvin P. Thorpe. Best of all is Ed Dixon as the wily, all-over-the-political-place governor, forced, when his adroit side-stepping fails, to close down the Chicken Ranch. Dixon's performance is so gleeful, loose-limbed and inventive that it, alone, almost saves the evening.
As the sheriff who has for decades protected Miss Mona's business while hiding his deep personal feelings for her, Gary Sandy adopts a strange, periodically staccato accent and a similar style of self-conscious posing. Neither he nor Ann-Margret can hold the stage. When one or the other is ruminating or singing, or when they're talking together, your attention wanders. You focus on one of the singers in the chorus and think things like, "Wouldn't that guy be great in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?" Or, "Who is that little blond in the back who seems so utterly engrossed in the proceedings?" It's impossible to miss the fact that almost any one of these chorines could out-sing, out-dance and out-act Ann Margret; the same is true of the male chorus members and Gary Sandy.
So what is this thing called star power? How many people were in the audience because of it? Are we really so conditioned by marketing that we prefer the image to the thing itself and would rather watch an emptily posturing star then a genuinely talented actor?
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