This last Friday night, July 5th at 8 pm I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to go see “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” as performed by the Newtowne Players at Three Notch Theatre. It was an absurd amount of devilish fun that I will not soon forget. I must warn you though, my friends, that this review may be a bit long-winded. There is simply too much to say about this show in a short blurb of a review. All that to say if you do find your eyes glazing over, feel free to skip to the final paragraph where I will tell you if you should see this show. I promise I will not take it personally.
“It was an absurd amount of devilish fun that I will not soon forget.”
My most prominent memory of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” is from the musical number “The Aggie Song” as performed at the 1979 Tony Awards. What made it so memorable was how laughably censored it was. Half of the song was covered up by the ridiculous sound of a xylophone and the other half I struggled to understand because I watched said clip on Youtube, where it had been very poorly transferred. Curious about this nonsense? Watch it here. Yes, you are in fact welcome for that treasure. Nonetheless, that song made me instantly fall in love with the hilarity and risqué fun that this show boasts when done properly. I’m happy to report that the Newtowne Players’ rendition of this song did a great job at paying homage to the original Broadway production through fun choreography by Lisa Martoni.
The basic premise of this show is that there is a whorehouse called the Chicken Ranch that operates just outside of a small Texan town. It’s been open since the 1800s, but suddenly a conservative news organization helmed by the laughably villainous Melvin P. Thorpe has made it its mission to get the establishment shut down immediately. During the course of the show, you get to go inside of the Chicken Ranch and meet Miss Mona, let’s call her the ‘proprietor,’ and her working girls. There are a lot of other characters and side plotlines, but I’ll get into that as this review progresses. This show deals with a lot of smart, political satire and an immense amount of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Now, I usually can pinpoint where a show shines in particular. Sometimes it’s the technical side of things (like in the Broadway production of “King Kong” or just about any production of “Little Shop of Horrors”) or the acting side of things (for example, Broadway’s revival of “Once on This Island”). However, this show did considerably well in both arenas. By force of habit, I’ll begin with the actors and then transition over to the technical side of the show.
I’d like preface this section by saying that all of the actors worked wonderfully together as a collective group. Scene partner chemistry was off the charts for everyone and all of the relationships were quite believable. Now onto the specific actors that I really enjoyed.
The leading lady Miss Mona Stangley is wonderfully portrayed by Megan Rankin Herring. Herring has not only a fantastic stage presence as an actress but also the grandeur that is required to play Miss Mona properly. Any time that she walked out onto the stage, all eyes were immediately glued to her. Her vocal cadence is alluringly charming, just as it should be while playing such a character. She also is able to infuse Miss Mona with an empathy that is palpable. During a song in Act 1, I could almost see her memories flickering across her eyes as she reminisced about an experience she had as a younger woman. Later, at the end of the show, I was enraptured with the emotional journey that she took the audience on before soulfully singing the final song “The Bus from Amarillo.” Getting to behold the nuance of her rejection and despair was a truly refreshing experience as a theatergoer. I’ll just leave it at this: Herring is a fierce actress with a beautiful voice that I look forward to getting to see perform again in the future.
Next, we must talk about Greg Rumpf, the actor who played Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. This man’s line delivery is sharp and wonderfully natural. The cynicism of Ed Earl was beautifully portrayed and has me laughing out loud many times. One of my favorite moments of Rumpf’s performance was during a monologue near the end of Act 1 when he completely loses it on a group of people. It was an absolutely hysterical scene, but don’t think for a second that this actor is only funny. Near the end of the show, he has a scene where his emotional vulnerability is able to show through. The depth to which Rumpf took the character was quite impressive. He also proved that he is able to maintain his professionalism even during technical glitches, such as when a gun failed to go off near the end of Act 1, and he just went with it. All in all, Rumpf was a very enjoyable actor to watch perform.
We now need to discuss the absurdly hysterical actor named Paul Rose who played the character of Melvin P. Thorpe. This actor was next level. The character that he created has vocal tones reminiscent of the Sheriff of Nottingham from the animated version of “Robinhood” and hilarious mannerisms that truly gave Melvin P. Thorpe the animated qualities that he needed to have in order to be just funny enough that it outweighs how irritating he can be as a character. I loved the random momentary eye crosses and the head bobbles, along with just about everything about Rose’s portrayal of this character. This man is truly the definition of a character actor. I found myself laughing so hard at certain points that I had to stop myself from snorting (It’s a thing I do when I laugh too hard. Don’t judge me.).
Four ensemble actresses that I really enjoyed were Emily Funderburk as Shy, Sarah Pollard as Doatsy Mae/Melvin P. Thorpe Singer/Choir, Rebecca Masters as Linda Lou/Imogene/Angelette, and Sara Espinosa as Durla/Angelette. Funderburk was very relatable with her portrayal as a young, naïve, and inexperienced girl just entering the world of a whorehouse. She was very interesting to watch throughout the show but was at her most captivating in Act 1 when she is about to embark on a new experience. It felt incredibly authentic and softly poignant. Pollard’s talent was most evident during her scenes as Doatsy Mae. If I’m being honest, I feel like this actress’ talents were a bit underutilized by her roles. She is a very talented singer and infused, most notably, Doatsy Mae with an emotional intensity that is rare with more minor characters in a production like this. Masters absolutely killed it (that’s a compliment) in her role as Imogene during the football game when she’s talking with the Telecaster. I about died in my seat with how spot on her comedic timing was. It may have been just a short little sequence, but it left quite an impression on me and the rest of the audience. Finally, Espinosa was a pleasant surprise of a standout ensemble cast member. She didn’t speak very much, but her palpable authenticity to the characters that she portrayed was both refreshing and very enjoyable.
Four ensemble actors that stood out to me were Robert Rausch as Senator Wingwoah, Steve Pugh as Farmer/C.J. Scruggs/Aggie, Patrick Schoenberger as Bandleader/Mayor Rufus Poindexter/Football Announcer/Aggie, and Kenny Faison as Aggie/Doggette/Choir. Rausch had me chuckling to myself during the Chicken Ranch raid near the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. His comedic timing was spot on during the entire sequence. Pugh had an intensity with the character of C.J. Scruggs that was much appreciated. Some of the moments he created with his Aggie character were the funniest of the show. Schoenberger possesses a very believable Texan accent and has an overall very substantial stage presence that made his performances rather nice to watch. Finally, Faison was my surprise ensemble actor that I found myself watching intently any time he was in a scene. There was a particularly comical moment at the end of the protest in Act 2 when he screeches while grabbing a window to aid in changing the scene.
Time to transition to the technical side of this review. Have you stayed with me this long, friends? If you have, I congratulate you. I know this is a very long review. However, I feel that not picking apart all of the intricacies of this show would be an absolute disservice to all of the people that worked so hard on this production. Their work clearly paid off and it deserves recognition for such.
When I first sat down in my seat before the show began, I wasn’t immediately impressed with the set. It seemed pretty status quo community theatre set. It had two levels, one with the musicians and an open bedroom, and one with couches in a living room. However, as the musical progressed, I found myself really falling in love with this set. Very simple changes occur throughout that have monumental effects on the setting of various scenes. A great example of this was when a curtain painted to look like outside was pulled in front of the upper level of the set. Couches were pushed back and covered, along with one set piece being added to the set. Within a few minutes, the set completely transformed from the Chicken Ranch to the outside of a different building. Steve Pugh, the set designer, did an excellent job with the simplistic versatility of this set. Color me impressed (seriously, the inner high school drama kid inside of me was very pleased with this set).
The lighting design by Dave Kyser provided good context to the timing of certain scenes. It was always very evident what time of day a particular scene took place in. The scenes that required spotlight were also very well executed. However, I found myself wishing that the scene changes would have taken place with no lighting instead of partial lighting. I understand that this may have been done for practical reasons, but it wasn’t my favorite choice.
Sound design by Jay McKulka was fine for the majority of the play. There were a few moments that I found myself struggling to hear some of the singing, but I understand that this can happen when individual actors do not have microphones and have to rely solely on projection and a hanging communal microphone. I did enjoy the musical selection that played prior to the opening of the production. It helped set the theme and overall feel of the show.
The two costumers of this production, Millie Coryer-Dhu and Jo Ellen Nutter, did a fantastic job with maintaining period-appropriate clothing and conveying characters through what they were wearing. I am a firm believer that costuming in a musical should enhance, not detract away from the rest of the show. Coryer-Dhu and Nutter did a fabulous job in this endeavor. I kept gaping at every costume change that Miss Mona undergoes throughout the show. I think my two favorite costumes of hers were the green dress she wears at the beginning of Act 1 and the nightgown (even though it was far too gorgeous to even be called that if you ask me) in Act 2.
Before I get to the director, I must compliment the musicians on their performance and the musical director Diane Trautman on her wonderful direction. This show with all of its set changes and songs, would simply not work without their hard work that they poured into their performances. I also enjoyed how they were on the stage with the actors. Sometimes this artistic choice can be distracting (I’m looking at you, “Chicago” on Broadway), but in this case, it was more reminiscent of how it’s done in the Broadway musical “Waitress.” I really enjoyed this little moment they had where they used an instrument to wolf whistle at a beautiful girl during her makeover reveal. The music in this show was very fun thanks in part to these talented musicians.
Alright, let’s finally talk about the direction of this musical. I’m an adamant believer that a director can make or break a show. If their artistic vision is lacking, it sadly tends to bleed into every other facet of the show. However, in the case of this show, the director Dawn Weber did a very good job as creating a specific tone for this show. This show breathed comedy is such a refreshing way and brought the story to a very relatable place where I felt like I was literally watching a small town in front of me instead of a glamorized, Hollywood version of a small town. I appreciated the authenticity of her direction. In particular, I really loved the scene that took place on the streets of the town in Act 1. It was a very well-choreographed scene, comedically speaking.
Phew. We made to the end of this long review. If you stuck with me through it, good on you. If you skimmed to this paragraph, I don’t judge you in the slightest. Reading long theatre reviews is surely not for everyone. So, would I recommend this show? Yes, but as with most shows, with a slight caveat. This show would be excellent for a viewer who enjoys risqué (but not trashy) humor and can also appreciate tongue-in-cheek humor. However, due to its mature themed content, I cannot in good conscience recommend this show to anyone under the age of 18. If you are of age though, this is a raucous good time that I would 100% recommend for anyone who just needs a good laugh.
Running Time: Approximately in 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: This show contains mature themes relating to sexual content, explicit language, and gunfire. Ages 18 and up recommended.
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” is currently playing at Three Notch Theatre through July 21st. For information and to purchase tickets, please visit their website here.