Monday, January 25, 2016

"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" at Artistry

In one of those strange local theater programming coincidences, I have seen The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas twice in the last year, after never having seen it before in my life. But I enjoyed the charmingly corny show at the Old Log last summer, so I was happy to give it another go as part of the former Bloomington Civic Theatre's first season as Artistry. I think I like it even more the second time around! First of all - it's a whole lot of fun (whorehouse + '70s + Texas = fun). But if you look a bit deeper, you'll see some prescient themes in this 1978 Broadway hit about the influence of TV and the media to ignite hysteria, as well as the power of women over their lives and their bodies, or lack thereof. If you're not convinced yet, let me give you a few more reasons to see this show.

But first, a brief plot summary* for those unfamiliar with the stage musical or the 1982 movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. The title pretty much tells you what this show is about. But you may not know that it's based on the story of a real life Texas brothel known as the Chicken Ranch (during the Depression the Madam would accept chickens as payment) that was largely tolerated by law enforcement and government until a TV reporter investigated and demanded it be shut down. In the musical version, Miss Mona runs the Ranch with a strict set of rules and presides over her girls, most of whom seem happy to be there, although some have dreams of a better life. Ed Earl is the sheriff and her sometimes beau, and is torn when given orders to shut the Ranch down after it's exposed by the TV star reporter Melvin Thorpe. It's a sad ending as the girls all move on, but there's plenty of fun to be had before that with cheerleaders, football players, and a general hoedown atmosphere.

Ten reasons to see The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas:
  1. If you haven't been to BCT/Artistry lately, you should check it out. They've recently made the transition from community to professional theater and are under new leadership, namely that of Producing Artistic Director Benjamin McGovern. With experience at the Guthrie, Dark and Stormy, and other theater around town, it'll be interesting to see what he brings to Artistry. 
  2. Diana Wilde, who it seems is making her Artistry debut, gives a star performance as Miss Mona. She has a voice perfectly suited to these country tunes, and gives Mona an air of warmth, world-weariness, and determination to make life good for herself and her girls, with a hint of softness underneath the tough exterior.
  3. Definitely one reason to see this show is to watch Jim Pounds let loose as Ed Earl with his down home charm, fiery temper, and colorful language. He gets some big laughs, but also let's us see the real relationship between him and Mona.
  4. Worth the price of admission is hearing Jill Iverson sing the lovely and poignant song "Doatsy Mae," while imbuing the character with spunk and sarcasm as she holds her own among the big boys in town. I only wish the character had more to do!
  5. The ensemble includes over two dozen talented singer/actor/dancers, including a pretty large contingent of young people just out of or still in college. This brings a youthful energetic vibe to the show. Artistry is a great training ground for young actors, many of whom go on to bigger stages in town. It's fun to pick out standouts in the ensemble and watch them progress in their careers.
  6. As a child of the '70s I'm a little bit obsessed with '70s fashion, and there's plenty of that here (including an orange and gold jumpsuit I swear I've seen before, maybe here?), as well as general glitz, glam, Western wear, and other outrageousness. Not to mention that I'm pretty sure Best Little Whorehouse holds the record for most cowboy boots on stage (costume design by Ed Gleeman).
  7. Choreography by Joe Chvala is a good reason to see any show, but the clogging style of this show is particularly suited to his brand of "flying foot" dance. And when he also directs, as he does here, the entire show has the energy and flow of a dance. There is some fantastic boot-stomping in "The Aggie Song," in which the boys show off more than just their abs! The girls have plenty to do too, and everyone in the ensemble steps up (pun intended) to the task. And just so we don't leave feeling down, the bittersweet ending is wiped away but a post-curtain call hoedown!
  8. It's great fun to see resident Music Director Anita Ruth get out of the pit for a change, leading a five-piece twangy country band on-stage, beautifully delivering a score that has that wonderfully cheesy '70s country sound.
  9. In the show we see a TV celebrity with a crazy hairpiece stir up fear in the public and direct it towards one group of people, who are belittled and ostracized and forced to give up their way of life. Where else have I seen that recently?
  10. Finally, the true story of the Chicken Ranch is an inspiring story of a woman-owned business with employees that are well taken care of - fairly compensated, given access health care, and protected from abusive and manipulative pimps. There are much worse things in this world.
There you have it - ten reasons to head south to Bloomington between now and February 14 to see The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

the cast of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

*I borrowed this plot summary from my post about the Old Log's production of the show.