In comedies, brothels tend to be treated with a wry, salty braggadocio. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is no exception. These Lone Star ladies of easy virtue, with their lingerie and come-hither poses, look like they're going to win gold medals in the sex olympics. And they know it! You almost forget they make money by giving themselves to men, many of whom they don't even like. Yet, somehow, the show is not offensive " maybe because the hypocritical televangelist who closes down the joint lifts the story to a Marx Brothers level of nuttiness. In some parts of the country, this minister might seem unbelievably weird. Here in the great, blasé state of Louisiana, we can confidently expect him to get nabbed in a compromising situation in a motel on Airline Highway.
The current production of Whorehouse at Le Petit (directed by Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey) is outstanding. It begins with a rocking country band that warms up the audience with a few tunes before receding behind a curtain to accompany the musical numbers. We learn, mostly in song, how this historic palace of pleasure passed as an inheritance into the hands of Mona (Karen Hebert), who was one of the working girls. Mona's bordello is ruled by laws only slightly less demanding than the Sharia of Muslim fundamentalists. Yet we see in brief glimpses that this tough-talking purveyor of forbidden fruits has the proverbial heart of gold. Mona is the central character, and Hebert gives a sensitive and compelling performance. Our first brush with Mona's simpatico side comes when two new girls arrive. One (Jessie Terrebonne) is already a pro, and the other (Angela Papale) is an abused, young runaway looking for a job.
Mona's business " also known as the 'Chicken Ranch" because poultry was accepted in lieu of cash in hard times " is an open secret in town. The place has managed to survive partly because no one really minds it being there, partly because Mona donates to the campaigns of state politicos and mostly because the sheriff (Richard Hutton) protects her. In fact, Mona and the sheriff are like an update of Gunsmoke's famous pair, Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. The sheriff, who is not very articulate in the schooled sense of the word, is nothing less than eloquent when it comes to down-home slang and can spin a shit-kicking metaphor with the best of them. 'I feel like a country dog in the city. If I stand still, they'll f*** me! If I run, they'll bite my tail!" The one who is actually biting his tail is Melvin Thorpe, the aforementioned televangelist who calls himself, appropriately enough, 'The Watchdog." Thorpe (Kristopher Lloyd Shaw) has blown-back white hair and wears a tackily ornate blue suit with an American-flag tie. He has a chorus of singers to add pizzazz to his TV show, and his ministry consists of getting the goods on sinners and increasing his ratings, celebrity and, no doubt, his stock portfolio.
As Thorpe rails against the brothel, politicians begin to squirm uncomfortably in the spotlight, trying to give the appearance of disapproving of the cathouse in their midst without taking any concrete action against it. In fact, one senator (Jimmy de Montluzin) is a regular customer who has promised the Aggies' football team he'll bring them to the Chicken Ranch for Thanksgiving. The media glare, however, finally makes the situation too hot to handle. The governor (a spry, hilarious Dane Rhodes) threatens to send in the Texas Rangers if the sheriff doesn't close Mona's down.
The melancholy moment has arrived. A tradition is coming to an end and so is an unlikely romance. The girls must pack their belongings and hit the road. We don't really get to know them as individuals, but it's sad to watch them lose their refuge " the place where they belonged, where they were free from pimps and the more sordid aspects of their trade.
The singing in Whorehouse is generally excellent. In the case of some performers like Richard Hutton and Joan Spraggins (who plays Jewel, the maid), the strong vocals are as expected as they are delightful. Some of the others are more of a surprise. Lara Grice, in her irrepressible way, brings down the house in the tiny role of a waitress. It's also worth noting that the Aggies football team (in Karen Hebert's choreography) pulls off the best male ensemble dancing I've seen in this town.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a pleasure. Make your reservations early. This one's going to be a hit.
- The football team gets invited to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but the athletes may be among its final patrons.