When P.T. Barnum invented the three-ring circus, his idea was to have so much going on at one time that it would be impossible to take it all in with a single viewing.
The same effect can be observed in Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. You're never quite sure where to look—sometimes because of the embarrassing antics onstage, but mostly because of the richly detailed performances created by the talented cast.
The musical is loosely based on an actual brothel, called the Chicken Ranch, that operated in Texas until 1973. As portrayed in the musical, it's a happy home where every hooker has a heart of gold, and an honest girl can earn a fair wage for a good night's work.
Ashley Stephenson's two-story whorehouse set establishes the carnival atmosphere right from the beginning. The paint is bright bordello red; the walls are adorned with some tastefully naughty paintings; the peek-a-boo walls expose the salacious goings-on inside. (Audiences should be aware that the show contains simulated sex acts and some rear nudity.)
Not surprisingly, the—how shall we put this?—"hostess," Mona Stangley, makes her entrance in an outfit that perfectly suits her surroundings. Costume-designer Patrick Holt has run amok with Miss Mona's wardrobe. Feathered and ruffled, in a shocking rainbow palette, and topped with the largest head of hair I have ever seen, Mona looks like a cross between a Texas housewife and a Vegas showgirl.
The costume is filled to perfection by Angela Bray, as the good madam. Bray commands the stage like a professional, and her warm presence makes it clear why Mona is so beloved by her girls and the community. Bray also has a beautiful singing voice, which is sadly held back by several songs that sit too low within her range.
Whatever you do, though, don't call Miss Mona "madam" to her face. That's just one of many words she doesn't allow in her honorable house of ill repute, where they merely conduct "business" with "customers," and there's "nothing dirty going on."
We get to know the girls at the house through the introduction of Angel (Rebecca Spigelman) and Shy (Jennifer Hijazi). One is a seasoned streetwalker looking for relief from an abusive pimp, and the other is a simple country girl escaping a painful secret at home. Spigelman and Hijazi bring such heart and charm to their roles that it's a disappointment to realize their stories are barely touched in the remainder of the musical.
The same is true for most of the minor characters. This show has a large ensemble cast, and director Samantha Wyer has helped them create such detailed performances that every character, even those without lines, clearly has a life of his or her own. This is the goal of any large cast production, but I have never seen it achieved with such success.
Special notice should be given to three performers in particular. Claire Graham plays café waitress Doatsey Mae, who, since no one is interested in hearing what she has to say, stops the show to belt out her frustrated dreams to the audience. Max Nussbaum's performance as the governor in a number called "The Sidestep" is side-splittingly funny, and is one of the best parts of the show. And Tamika Lawrence, as Miss Mona's right hand, Jewel, tears down the house whenever she sings, and clearly has a bright future ahead as a professional performer.
The minor characters also shine in part because—as in any circus—there's not much of a story to speak of. The script, by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, lacks imagination, and its best moments are recycled until they lose their humor. Carol Hall's score has a few high points ("The Sidestep," "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'") but mostly falls flat. The score's real saving grace is the athletic dancing, staged by choreographer Amy Shuttleworth.
Here's the plot: A publicity-hungry TV personality exposes the existence of the Chicken Ranch and stirs up a media circus of moral outrage until the governor has the brothel shut down.
That's all there is.
It's a shame the story isn't more developed, if only to get more mileage out of the deliciously repellent TV-reporter villain, Melvin P. Thorpe. Played with relish by Chris Hixson, Thorpe comes off as the unholy lovechild of Rip Taylor and a used-car salesman.
He's a no-holds-barred, slimy self-aggrandizer, somehow made more repellant by the fact that no reasonable argument can be raised against the rightness of his cause. He's not a stereotypical "conservative hypocrite" with a shady double life, and Hixson plays him without judgment or self-mockery. The result is both hysterically funny and shudder-inducing.
Thorpe is more than a match for his nemesis, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. The sheriff has a short temper, a sailor's vocabulary and a soft spot in his heart for Miss Mona.
Brad Kula brings confidence and a strong stage presence to the role, but he isn't given much to work with. He's easily the least-appealing character onstage and does little but wander from scene to scene, shooting off his mouth or firing his gun into the air.
At the end, as Miss Mona sings about "taking the road to nowhere," it's clear that when the circus is over, you're left with just sawdust and rags.