Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in the fictitious small town of Gilbert, Texas, in the 1970s, Miss Mona is the proprietress of the Chicken Ranch, the local brothel. Mona is fierce but compassionate and extremely loyal and protective of her girls. She is also loyal to the local Sheriff Ed Earl and we soon discover that they also share a romantic past. When the big city investigative TV reporter Melvin P. Thorpe threatens to expose the Chicken Ranch in an effort to protect the morals of the citizens, it threatens Mona's livelihood as well as her relationship with Ed Earle.
The lively score by Carol Hall features memorable, folksy country western tunes and upbeat ballads. But the book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, which is based on King's investigative story about the actual Chicken Ranch, is sorely lacking in character and plot development. For example, at the beginning of the show we are introduced to two girls, Angel and Shy, who come to the Chicken Ranch looking for work. After a fairly long scene in which Mona takes them in, finds out about their background, and introduces them to the rules of the house, we basically never hear from them again. Another minor character, Doatsey Mae, is in two fairly short scenes yet gets one of the best solo songs in the show. Even Thorpe is given very little to do and is virtually two-dimensionaland non-existent after the second act opener.
Fortunately, the ABT production plays up the romance between Mona and Ed Earle, which helps give some shading to their characters, and features an exceptional cast and superb choreography by Kurtis W. Overby, which help bring plenty of showbiz razzle dazzle to the proceedings. Director Andy Meyers, who also is a hoot as Thorpe, does his best to try to make some sense of the minimal plot. He draws fun portrayals from his cast, with the female ensemble making each of Mona's girls a distinctive character. With the inclusion of a small dose of partial nudity and some suggestive poses, Meyers doesn't downplay the realities of what goes on behind the closed doors of Mona's establishment. But he doesn't try to legitimize it either, instead simply portraying the Chicken Ranch as a business and Mona and her girls as a family.
Cassandra Norville Klaphake isn't just all business as Mona, but also projects a motherly love for these young women. Her earthy voice interjects feeling into her songs. Mark DiConzo is a comic joy as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, adding "good old boy" ticks and mannerisms to his stage movement and a deep Texas cadence to his vocal delivery. It all adds up to a very funny portrayal. The connection between Klaphake and DiConzo is believable and comes to a realistic smolder in the finale.
In the supporting cast, Chanel Bragg as Jewel, the Chicken Ranch maid, and Renée Kathleen Koher as Doatsey Mae, the town coffee shop waitress, create lovable women and deliver powerful versions of their solo songs. Quinn Vaira and Liz Fallon are quite good as Shy and Angel. Michael Weaver, as the governor, brings a sense of pure joy as he sings and dances "The Sidestep."
Meyers and Overby create several showstopping moments including the energetic and enthusiastic athletic dancing of the male ensemble in "The Aggie Song" and the high-stepping hijinks in "Texas Has a Whorehouse in It." James A. May's music direction achieves beautiful vocals throughout, including lush harmonies in "Hard Candy Christmas." Set designer Michaela Lynne Stein's two-story Chicken Ranch set is impressive while the costume designs from Amanda Embry are distinctive and character specific.
By playing up the romance between the leads, which adds heart and heat to the production, and clarifying a few things with wise directorial choices, ABT's production does what it can to sidestep the flaws in the original book. With a very good cast and some impressive choreography, the end result is a high energy, extremely professional production that provides a fun, nostalgic look back. Just try not to pay too much attention to the lack of plot developments.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas runs through May 8th, 2016, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623-776-8400.
Music and lyrics by Carol Hall
* Actor appears through the courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States