“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to clichés. From the fun-loving prostitutes and heart-of-gold madam to the two-faced politicians, randy college football players and a cantankerous sheriff, there’s hardly an old chestnut that doesn’t get trotted out for a Texas two-step in this 1978 musical being staged at Old Log Theatre.
Based on the story of a real brothel in Texas, “Whorehouse” is as much about political hypocrisy and journalistic opportunism as it is about prostitution. The Chicken Ranch (so-called because its patrons often paid with chickens during hard times) carried out its illegal business with impunity for decades thanks to the winks, nods and dedicated patronage of local law enforcement and government officials. Then in 1973 it was targeted by an attention-hungry TV reporter and shut down. The only heroes here? The working girls and their motherly madam, at least in the musical’s viewpoint.
The material provides rich potential for social satire, but a scattershot approach blunts the impact. The play begins with the arrival of Shy (Johna Miller) and Angel, played by Britta Ollmann with a nice blend of gritty determination and vulnerability. Both are seeking refuge: Shy from a family situation gone toxic, Angel from a series of brutal pimps.
Their storylines could be promising, but they don’t develop in any meaningful way. Similarly, the hints of romance that underlie the relationship between Julia Cook’s sassy Miss Mona and Jefferson Slinkard’s good ol’ boy sheriff merely peter out without resolution. What “Whorehouse” substitutes for character development and story arc are a surfeit of obvious stereotypes and a plot that lurches from one musical number to the next.
Director R. Kent Knutson has assembled a high-spirited cast that attacks this work with energy. Cook gives Miss Mona an assured sense of presence; John Paul Gamoke provides one of the show’s comic highlights in his turn as the double-talking governor of Texas, and Greg Eiden is reliably humorous in dual roles as a hand-wringing business owner and conniving politician.
Maisie Twesme’s poignant and reflective rendition of the song “Doatsy Mae” stands out against the breezy pop-country sound of most of the rest of the musical numbers. Regina Peluso’s energetic choreography lends lively razzmatazz to the proceedings.
The enthusiasm of the production, unfortunately, goes only so far in mitigating a work whose aimless book, tepid music and relentless reliance on cornpone cowboy humor call to mind another Texas cliché: all hat, no cattle.
Lisa Brock is a Minneapolis writer.