[by Robert Steinman, Special to Community]
Would “Bordello” have been better? For a sell-out audience that laughed and applauded throughout, the title of the current CenterStage offering was just fine. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas sounds spicy and is suggestive, but it works well for this Tony Award-winning play.
John Leffert, CenterStage artistic director, apologetically (tongue-in-cheek, I expect) announced that the language used in the play was on the coarse side and no one could, by law, change and soften the script. Such was the beginning of an evening of fun, lightheartedness and just a bit of wickedness.
The story is based on a little known bit of history – for more than 100 years, serving veterans of five wars, cowboys, farmers, travelers, politicians and more, there actually was a bordello in Texas more recently called the “Chicken Ranch” (called that because during the depression, services were often paid for with chickens and farm goods.)
It operated from the 1840’s to 1973 when it was finally shut down by the efforts of a Bible-thumping, crusading, Houston radio personality and his conservative followers. That story was massaged and written into a hit musical by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson with music and lyrics by Carol Hall.
Leffert, also the scenic designer, created sets with a functional simplicity that worked well. The players skillfully moved in and around the main set with ease for their fine choreographic work and even managed the flow of people when the whorehouse was raided.
While everyone played their roles well and the singing and dancing was wonderful, through the direction brought by the play, I found myself focusing on particular individuals with major roles.
Miss Mona, the Chicken Ranch Madame, was brought to life by a very talented Glenna Godsey, whose acting and singing were outstanding. Her duet in the second act with Tamika McDonald who played “Jewel” (a “watchdog” of and for the girls) was especially moving.
The story tells us that the character “Mona” shouldn’t be faulted as she was a valued member of the community. She paid her taxes regularly and gave money and time to the community.
Mona was close to the sheriff, Ed Earl (Kiel Dodd) who helped keep the whorehouse doors open despite their illegality. The sheriff was played well and enthusiastically by Rusty Henie.
And, there must be a villain – in this case it’s a boisterous, sleazy and irritating Melvin P. Thorpe, well played to the letter by Jason Cooper. The self-promoting Thorpe successfully moved his conservative followers into managing the ultimate demise of the Chicken Ranch.
This play wasn’t a lesson on sexual abuse or religious morals. It was just a play endowed with silliness, fun and a bit of reality wherever one might find it.