Forget the cable shouters and the network pundits: A ’70s musical about sex workers and media whores may be the most pungent political commentary currently on offer in this reeking cesspool we call a capital region.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has never been a great show—the songs are good, but not great, and the book is an ungainly hash that can’t decide where to put its focus. But the surprisingly affecting production that’s opening the Signature Theatre season, anchored by terrific performances in the key roles of a Texas madam and her good buddy the local sheriff, makes as good an election-year tonic as anything short of a politician getting getting pantsed at a podium.
Miss Mona Stangley, played memorably if not subtly on film by Dolly Parton, is a part that might have been written for Signature regular Sherri L. Edelen: She’s brassy, busty, and businesslike. (Edelen and her two best friends got star-entrance applause at last Sunday’s press performance, and Kathleen Geldard’s uplifting costume designs are a decent—barely—part of the reason why.) But Miss Mona is also profoundly humane and surprisingly wise, and it’s that part of the character that Edelen and director Eric Schaeffer are focusing on. Her empathy for the fresh-off-the-farm hooker Shy, played sweetly here by Madeline Botteri, registers so richly in the opening scenes that for a while it feels like that’s going to be the show’s central thread. (It isn’t, which is one of those weaknesses in the book; Shy more or less disappears after her first trick, and that’s kind of a shame.)
The story goes instead down the real-life road dictated by the events chronicled in Larry L. King’s Playboy magazine reporting on the real-life Chicken Ranch, a decades-old institution targeted in the ’70s by an opportunistic TV hack with a specialty in toupees and moral outrage. (He’s played here, with appropriate broadness and a jet-black wig of profound hideousness, by Christopher Bloch.) Sensational reporting and political cravenness combine, in the show as in history, to spell the end of the Chicken Ranch, which King and collaborators Peter Masterson and Carol Hall depict as anything but a vice pit; this “little bitty pissant country place,” as the show’s most famous lyric would have it, comes across as one of the Lone Star State’s more wholesome institutions.
That story takes longer than necessary to unfold, and the otherwise straightforward plot takes an odd detour into internal monologue with a wistful number for Doatsy Mae, the waitress at the local diner—though at least Schaeffer has given that part to Tracy Lynn Olivera, who sings it as gorgeously as she does everything. And of course it helps that that the sheriff who’s caught between that crusading buffoon and his genuine affection for Miss Mona is played by Thomas Adrian Simpson, a lanky cuss with a knack for precise comedy. The chemistry he and Edelen have onstage is only partly to do with the fact that they’re a couple off-; they’re also veteran collaborators and emotionally transparent communicators of the most gratifying sort.
They’re the best, but not the only good, elements of a staging that makes a better case for Whorehouse than I ever imagined could be made. Handsomely designed, briskly choreographed by Karma Camp, and winningly sung by a predominantly D.C.-based ensemble, it’s substantially more than pissant.