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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Also see Scott's recent review of Hello, Dolly!

Throw together a well-known musical theater piece, lots of good singing and dancing, a strong dose of sexual naughtiness, and a big name star, and what do you get? Well, as witnessed currently at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, you get Ann-Margret in the national tour of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Originally staged on Broadway in 1978 (and consequently a movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds), this musical dramatizes the real-life story of a legendary house of ill-repute that remained open for many years until the Governor orders the local sheriff to shut it down. The Governor only makes this decision to appease his constituents following the slimy crusades of a Texas television reporter. Stories of some of the struggles of the "employees" of the Chicken Ranch, as the whorehouse is known, are also shown.

As Miss Mona, the proprietor of the Chicken Ranch, Ann-Margret brings her ageless energy, beauty, and sexiness to the role, much to the delight of the audience. Despite reports from early in the tour that the show-biz legend seemed uneasy in her legitimate theatrical debut, she appears to have settled comfortably into the character. This Miss Mona, though still not as anchored as solidly on a musical theater stage as some of her co-stars, possesses a sultry, smoky singing voice, exudes star quality and charisma, and is obviously having lots of fun. The rest of the cast is delightfully wonderful. Gary Sandy provides a stellar performance as Ed Earl Dodd, the coarse and hot-tempered sheriff with a special relationship with Miss Mona. Mr. Sandy delivers his many expletive laden monologues quickly and with authentic flair, while also convincingly portraying the softer side of the man to great effect. Avery Sommers, as Miss Mona's right-hand lady, leads the "working girls" in a vibrant and rocking "Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin'" to thunderous applause. As Melvin P. Thorpe, the pompous and pious television reporter whose mission is to shut down the whorehouse, Rob Donohoe brings relentless energy and humor to the show. Likewise, Ed Dixon's portrayal of the Governor who is reluctant to take a stand on either side of an issue is inspired, and his comical vocals and surprising dance steps in "The Sidestep" are highlights of the show. The other supporting actors and the entire ensemble are equally impressive and are provided with ample opportunities to show the talents. A finer ensemble from top to bottom is rarely seen in a touring production.

The show has both music and lyrics by Carol Hall and a book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson. Ms. Hall's songs are tuneful, memorable, and fun, and include an attractive new song entitled "A Friend of Mine" written for Ann-Margret for this production. The book, however, is uneven at times. Much of the dialogue receives plenty of laughs, but it is too often by way of profanity rich tirades rather than well-written jokes or situations. The ending is somewhat abrupt and a more defined resolution would be advantageous to the story line.

Director-Choreographer Tommie Walsh has recreated the excellent dances of the original production and uses the talented ensemble wonderfully. He unfortunately is not as successful in leading his performers during the slower numbers and dialogue scenes. The high level of his choreography is evident, especially compared with the mediocrity of his direction at times.

The costumes by Dona Granata fit the 1970s and country-western styles effectively, and the lingerie worn by the ladies is appropriately sexy and attractive. Fashion legend Bob Mackie has dressed Ann-Margret in stylish attire for this show, and though the star does look stunning in the clothes, they sometimes seem too flashy for the character. The original set design by Marjorie is retained, and though useful, is somewhat plain by modern standards. A fine seven-piece band is positioned on center-stage throughout the evening. The musicians are quite talented and spirited, but the choosing to have them continually present on stage is often distracting, especially when they sing backup to Miss Mona on one number, and would be better placed in the orchestra pit.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is an entertaining and well-performed production. Ann-Margret brings her refined stage presence and star name to lead a wonderfully talented cast in this fun, tuneful show. The musical plays in Cincinnati through April 1, 2001 before continuing to other cities throughout the US.

-- Scott Cain

Also see the current Cincinnati Area Theatre Schedule

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