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The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: A Rollicking Good Time and Free

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The setup:

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is the musical for which the phrase "a rollicking good time" may have been invented. Despite the deceptive lure of the (gasp!) shocking title, the subject matter is about as clean-cut as a Tupperware party, unless you are offended by seeing attractive young women in lingerie or studly cowboys shirtless. It opened in 1978 on Broadway, running for 1,584 performances, garnering a number of Tony Award nominations, winning several, before spawning a multi-city national tour that ended up with a seven-month run in Los Angeles.

The execution:

The two-story set, designed by Marjorie Kellogg, serves well to capture the various goings on, providing an upstairs series of "rooms" behind open Venetian blinds where the girls can take customers. Miss Mona runs the establishment in the fictional town of Gilbert, but aficionados know that the plot is based on the real-life "Chicken Ranch" that existed for years in La Grange, Texas.

Trouble arises in Paradise as a crusading television news reporter, Melvin P. Thorpe, brings his crew to Gilbert to expose the illegal activities,and is thwarted by Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, but the confrontation has been videotaped and fans the flames of puritanism. All three principals are excellent. Michelle DeJean plays Mona, and captures her strength, intelligence, nurturing soul, and mature physical appeal. Kevin Cooney plays the Sheriff, and delivers his humanity, good nature, and the warmth of his feelings for Miss Mona, with whom he shared a weekend in Galveston decades earlier.

Michael Tapley plays crusader Thorpe, and nails a difficult role, where he has to be over-the-top, obnoxious and yet richly amusing. He is the villain we love to hate, and Tapley is delightful. John Holly as the Governor of Texas, Christian-oriented, and a glib and articulate campaigner, brings his role to exciting life, and Drew Starlin as band leader and narrator is a standout, in blue jeans and a Stetson, with rock star charisma.

Betty Marie Muessig as the "entertainer" Shy, captures her naivete, Julia Krohn as Amber balances strength with compassion, and Aurelia Williams as Jewel, the housemaid, brings her powerful presence to the party. Brooke Wilson as the hash-slinger Doatsey Mae finds her toughness. The young men are largely interchangeable, but Michael D. Jablonski and Alex Nordin, both in various ensemble roles, managed to add personality to their interpretations.

The charm here is that the emotions are heartfelt and honest, except for the hypocritical politicians, and even though a life of prostitution in the real world in necessarily filled with danger and degradation, it is here sanitized into entertainment. The writing is extraordinarily good, the dialogue plausible, and the largely unspoken love between Mona and the Sheriff is sensitive and appealing.

And then there is the music, which grabs one by the - let's say "throat" - and won't let go. I especially loved Mona's "Girl, You're a Woman", "Texas Has a Whorehouse in It" and "Twenty-four Hours of Lovin'" in Act One, and "The Sidestep" and "Hard Candy Christmas" and Mona's "Bus from Amarillo" in Act Two. Some of the lyrics can be repetitive, but the staging, by TUTS Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin, and the choreography, by Shay Rogers, are elaborate, and turn these songs into events.

If I were to fault the production, I'd suggest that the sheriff might be in his forties instead of his sixties, and that there is more rich humor in "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'" than Williams was able to find, good as she was. The book's flaw is that, except for some grey-haired men in a diner, the show looks like a hen party until the Aggies show up late in the long first act. Check out our interview with Michelle DeJean who plays Miss Mona.

The bedrock anchor to this extravaganza is Miss Mona, and enough cannot be said as to how good DeJean is in the role. She kicks "rollicking good time" up a notch, and into the realm of -- dare I say it? -- art, aided by the strength of the book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, and the music and lyrics of Carol Hall.

The verdict:

Great music, a strong book, energized choreography, deft direction and a talented cast make this "must-see" entertainment. And - can you believe it? - it's free!

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas continues through July 20, at 8:15 p.m., from Theatre Under The Stars, at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive, For information call 281-373-3386 or visit milleroutdoortheatre.com.

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