August 30, 2012 at 10:08 am EDT | by Brian T. Carney
Bawdy bordello

Sherri L. Edelen, left, as Miss Mona with cast members Amy McWilliams, Nora Palka, Jamie Eacker and Nadia Harika. (Photo by Christopher Mueller; courtesy Signature)

‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, Va.
Through Oct. 7
$40-$80; $30; rush tickets available

It takes a combination of exceptionally good source material and competent theatrical savvy to infuse a work from the late ‘70s with a fresh and timely feel, but that’s just what Signature Theatre has done with its current production, a mostly solid and highly entertaining adaptation of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” with which it’s opening its 23rd season.

With its focus on sexual hypocrisy, political treachery and media sensationalism, the plot could have been ripped from today’s headlines. Instead, it’s based on a real piece of Texas history — the closing of the infamous Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas in 1973. The musical moves the action to the fictional town of Gilbert in 1978. The Chicken Ranch is run by the wily and earthy Miss Mona (Sherri L. Edelen). Working closely with the tough-talking Sheriff Earl Dodd and maintaining a strict set of rules, Miss Mona creates a refuge for her “ladies” and a pleasant atmosphere for her guests.

Unfortunately, the house is discovered by Melvin P. Thorpe, a seedy, self-styled, self-serving media watchdog who decides that the house must be closed down. State and local politicians try to ignore the furor, but Thorpe stages a raid just as the fabled Aggies football team arrives to celebrate their big victory. The oily Governor forces the Sheriff to shut down the Chicken Ranch and Miss Mona and her girls are forced to leave what has become their home and safe haven.

The musical features a tight book by Larry L. King (the D.C.-based author, not the CNN newsman) and Peter Masterson that is folksy without ever being cloying, and music and lyrics by Carol Hall. Hall’s score is an effective blend of rousing production numbers and intimate country ballads and her clever lyrics are playful and witty without ever being too explicit. After all, as Miss Mona says with a wicked twinkle in her eye, “There’s nothing dirty going on.” In fact, the show, which was rather controversial when it opened (newspapers refused to run ads for the production and CBS heavily censored “The Aggie Song” during the Tony broadcast), seems almost tame today.

The vibrant Edelen effortlessly leads a strong cast through a complex combination of broad satire, astute social commentary and the moving details of lives torn apart by cruelty, cowardice and political opportunism. She’s got a powerful voice, a wry smile and delicious comic timing along with a sure hand with the heart-felt book scenes and when the time finally comes, solid two-step abilities. Nova Y. Payton rocks the house as Mona’s assistant, Jewel. Their duet “No Lies” is bound to be a highlight of the theater season. Other strong performances are turned in by Thomas Adrian Simpson as the Sheriff, Dan Manning as the slick-tongued and nimble-footed Governor and Christopher Bloch as Melvin P. Thorpe, an amusingly sleazy blend of Geraldo Rivera and Jerry Falwell.

There are, unfortunately, a few missteps in the production. The offstage band is small but way too loud and bass heavy. The opening number is flat with static staging and boring distracting projections. Overall, the design work is uneven. For example, the red and black lingerie pieces for the girls don’t fit the ambience at the Chicken Ranch and the boys don’t even bother to dress up for their big night at the whorehouse.

The most serious flaw in the production, however, is the staging of many of the lovely ballads. Just when the show needs some breathing room and just when the characters have something important to share, the numbers are loud, rushed and poorly lit.

Overall though, the production — helmed by Eric Schaeffer (Signature’s artistic director) — is redeemed with its outstanding ensemble. The talented team creates sharply individualized characters, especially Madeline Botteri as Shy (her finely wrought performance highlights how the show thoughtfully addresses the realities of prostitution). They flawlessly execute Karma Camp’s delightful choreography. Her high-stepping dance routines are exhilarating, especially the ladies’ thrilling kick line that caps off “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place,” the toe-tapping shenanigans of “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It” and “The Sidestep.” There’s also incredible athletic artistry in “The Aggie Song,” where the boys change out of their football uniforms and lustily prepare for their night with the ladies.

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