Happy Hookers

Even bad girls feel good when they're in a supportive community

What separates us from the animals is our ability to turn sex into a commodity. Sex sells, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas uses our attraction and repulsion toward literal sellers of sex as the core issue of the production. The whimsical title reflects the fairy-tale presentation of Miss Mona's Chicken Ranch, where the girls are clean, the conversation is polite and "there's nothing dirty going on." In true American fashion, New Line Theatre's production of Whorehouse lets us have our pie and eat it, too -- we're entertained by a sexually provocative story while able to feel superior to its obviously hypocritical characters.

Whorehouse is based on the true story of a longtime Texas brothel that was exposed on national television in 1973 and closed down because of the negative publicity. The real-life TV reporter becomes the comic villain Melvin P. Thorpe in the stage version of the story and is played with self-righteous fervor by Nicholas Kelly (who seems to be New Line's resident rabble-rouser, having successfully played a similar role in Batboy). Opposing Thorpe is Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, played as a bumbling hick by Richard Enriquez, whose mantra "goddamn TV" seems to be the moral center of the play. Anchoring the production is Miss Mona, played with poise and conviction by Deborah Sharn.

Producing beautiful harmonies along with Sharn are the Ladies of the Chicken Ranch: Christina Crowe, Kim Furlow, Heather G'Sell, Molly McBride, Taylor Pietz, Kimi Short, Lainie Wade and Jennifer Wells. Victoria Thomas, as Miss Mona's maid Jewel, sings a sultry "24 Hours of Lovin'" and joins Sharn for a top-notch duet in "No Lies." The production focuses on the positive aspects of community -- Mona's place is a model of acceptance and respect. Even local waitress Doatsey Mae (sweetly sung by Alice Kinsella) longs to be a Chicken Ranch girl. But this utopian presentation of prostitution is troubling in an early scene in which a runaway girl reveals that she's an incest victim. Mona's response, "Well, you're not the first one that's happened to," and her following song, "Girl, You're a Woman," show the girl's transformation into a happy hooker, holding her head up high. This troubling bit of psychology raises lingering, distracting questions.

The mostly one-note male characters (who are interested in sex, self-preservation or power) are wisely played for their humor rather than their humanity. Thom Crain, as the governor of Texas, practically steals the show with "The Sidestep." The men playing the winning Aggie football team preparing for a victory trip to the Chicken Ranch pump the show up to its highest level of excitement. Director Scott Miller and choreographer Robin Berger excel here, teasing the audience with nudity upstage and action downstage while showcasing the various singing and dancing talents of the male ensemble. In this scene we see the production's potential to play with audience expectations -- male nudity in a play in which we expect female nudity -- while keeping us completely engaged and entertained.

The portrayal of Sheriff Dodd is the most disappointing aspect of the production. Enriquez never seems quite comfortable in the sheriff's holster, and there's no compelling relationship with Miss Mona. Dodd's final speech, about the power of live television, should be a revelation to him, but instead it feels like he's just rambling for no reason. Again playing against expectation, the musical ends not with a big production number but with a wistful solo, "The Bus From Amarillo," which Sharn sings beautifully.

Todd Schaefer's costumes capture the tones and textures of the early '70s (how did we ever find those polyester pantsuits attractive?), and set designer Justin Barisonek provides ample playing space and quick scene shifts to facilitate the action. Although it takes a while to get into gear, New Line Theatre's production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ultimately provides not only marvelous music and dance but substantial food for thought.