By Annette Hinkle
In light of realities such as AIDS and the child sex trade, the world’s oldest profession may seem a rather odd subject on which to base a musical. But when “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, music and lyrics by Carol Hall) premiered on Broadway in 1978, this country was firmly entrenched in the “free love” era, which likely made it a fairly tame offering by moral standards of the days.
Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center (SCC) is currently presenting a revival of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” under direction of Michael Disher, and while this play is a bit dated by modern standards (the evils of television are a recurring theme), there is still much to admire about this tale of hookers with heart.
This is a community production so the cast includes actors whose experience runs the gamut — from beginners to seasoned pros. But Disher and his entire crew approach this piece with an enthusiasm that is both endearing and touching — a boot stomping number makes it clear the whole cast is having a good time with this one.
And this is a whorehouse — aren’t good times what it’s all about?
Set in 1978 in rural Texas, the action takes place around the Chicken Ranch, a euphemism for a popular whorehouse run by Miss Mona Stangley (Valerie DiLorenzo). The place has been around for decades and Mona, who started working at the joint as a young woman, has inherited it from its previous madame.
Like her predecessor, Miss Mona runs a tight ship and her girls toe the line — no drugs, no STDs, no pimps and no jumping into bed with one another. The girls are expected to live clean (well, as much as is possible in a brothel) and treat their johns as “guests” with the utmost respect.
In general, the guests return the favor and it turns out the clients are not only frequent visitors and well-known to the girls — they are also well known to the community. By day, these upstanding members of society are in positions of power and by night, they are in more compromising positions with the girls at the Chicken Ranch.
Everyone in town it seems (well, the men at least) have a working knowledge of the place and are on a first named basis with its employees, including Senator Wingwoah (played by Rich Gardini) and the local sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd (Daniel Becker), which is what keeps things at the Chicken Ranch humming along nicely, if you will. It’s a system that has been in place for close to 100 years and given the pace of business, will continue well into the future.
But this, being Texas, not everyone is thrilled by the Chicken Ranch’s success — specifically Melvin P. Thorpe (Bill Kitzerow) a wig-wearing evangelical preacher with a TV news show and a gaggle of cult-like angelic devotees bent on bringing down the ranch and exposing everything (and everyone) in it. Their exposé culminates with a night-time raid while the Texas A&M Aggies are celebrating a big football win at the ranch courtesy of Senator Wingwoah who is indulging right alongside them.
Parallel to the action is the tale of the girls at the ranch, and stepping off a Greyhound bus and into the well-oiled brothel machinery early in the play are two new recruits — the exhausted, beaten and overworked Angel (Bethany Dellapolla) and Shy (played Pierson High School’s Emily Selyukova) a painfully naïve and inexperienced young woman who is fleeing a sexually abusive father.
Though Miss Mona is reluctant to take on Shy — she really needs a lot of work — it soon becomes clear the girl has no where else to go. This is where “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” finds its moral footing. The Chicken Ranch is not just a place where girls with few prospects can make a living, it also is a home in the truest sense of the word for those outcast and abused. It is also a place that protects women in a career of their own choosing.
There are some true standouts in this cast, particularly DiLorenzo who has an amazing singing voice. Also notable are the brothel’s new arrivals — Selyukova and Dellapolla (who also choreographed the show — the boot stomping Aggie dance is worth the price of admission) and Becker as the sheriff who is quickly losing control of his town and his temper.
While the Pollyanna notion of big hearted prostitutes in happy-go-lucky brothels is far-fetched in this jaded age, relevance still abounds. Some of the best scenes explore what it means to be a woman forced to make difficult decisions about her body and her life. The ultimate message here being that while some things, like prostitution and women’s choices, may change with time and politics, they never go away.
The cast also features Richard Adler, Lynda Aydinian, Tony D’Alessio, Adam Fronc, Barbara Jo Howard, Hailey Kohlus, John Leonard, Joan Lyons, Sabrina Manglaviti, Marc Rix, Thomas Rosante, Amy Rowland, Lon Shomer, Robert Stafford, Josephine Wallace, Thomas Wheeler, Edna Winston and Susan Wojcik. Musical director is Karen N. Hochstedler and set design is by Richard Keys and Sarah Moritz.
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” runs through November 3, 2013 with shows Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $25 ($12 for students). Call 287-4377 to reserve or purchase online at www.scc-arts.org.