The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas from TUTS: A Home-Grown Musical with Verve and Charm

See our interview with John Holly, the former executive producer of Theatre Under the Stars, who has returned to Houston to play the cameo role of the governor -- the same part he played 22 years ago, and our interview with Michael Tapley, who has played Melvin P. Thorne all over America.

The setup:

A Theatre Under the Stars revival of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the 1978 rollicking Broadway musical about the famed Texas "Chicken Ranch" rides into town with flags unfurled and spirits high.

The execution:

Subtlety is thrown under the bus as broad humor and one-dimensional characters strut their stuff with engaging charm and direct appeal to our funny bone. The book is a single-minded appeal to a nostalgic view of rural Texas, where Houston can be slighted as "citified," and a crusading television newscaster sets the tone for the evening's proceedings.

Michael Tapley portrays investigative reporter Melvin P. Thorpe, modeled on Houston's late Marvin Zindler, and many of Zindler's trademark slogans echo from the stage, to instant recognition and appreciative laughter from the audience. Tapley necessarily plays the role over-the-top, and the initially abrasive characterization segues into rich humor in Act II as he uses insistent volume to interrupt and intimidate the Texas governor, played by John Holly, who brings the house down with a reference to a recent gubernatorial gaffe.

The leading character -- among many in a large cast -- is Miss Mona, owner of the rural brothel, played by Michelle DeJean, and she is excellent, holding center stage with consummate poise and easy command, and creating a warm, interesting individual. Kevin Cooney plays Sheriff Dodd, and he is compelling, making the conflict between law and common sense seem realistic. He is Miss Mona's love interest, though she seems a generation younger. Tamara Siler plays the ranch's housekeeper, Jewel, literally a gem with her energy and style kicking a flat joke into the rafters of hilarity with body language. She can dance up a storm, and her talents and powerful melodic voice are showcased in "Twenty-Four Hours of Loving," easily the wittiest and best number of the evening.

At the other end, "Texas Has a Whorehouse in It" is severely handicapped by lyrics that don't stray far from the tedious title. Miss Mona's solo "Bus from Amarillo" is touching, and comes as close to poignant as this comedic jaunt cares to get. "Hard Candy Christmas" in Act II lets a number of the female "employees" of the ranch show their vocal ability. We get to know Amber and Shy best; Julia Krohn as Amber gives us a Dolly Parton persona and carries it off, and Brooke Wilson as Shy delights with superb and deliberately awkward body language.

The choreography by Angie Wheeler is energetic without being inspiring, but there is a wonderful dance in Act I as six cheerleaders create the illusion of 18 - it is inventive and huge fun to watch. There is a male chorus of Aggie football players, and they are handsome and stalwart, but they are peripheral to the doings at the ranch-in-crisis, as forces of conventionality threaten to shut it down.

Roger Allan Raby directed and keeps the pace frenetic, and a bit calmer when required; he captures the driving energy of Texas, living up to the embellishments of the Lone Star Flags that intermittently adorn the stage, garnering the expected applause. The six-piece band is situated nicely to the central rear of the stage, shadowed by a second-level playing area, and is appropriately unobtrusive but wonderful. The set by Marjorie Kellogg is simple but serves well, and the costumes by Ray Delle Robbins are entertaining -- one contains an amusing surprise. The book is by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, and the music and lyrics are by Carol Hall.

The verdict:

Talented performers, engaging music and a brisk comedic script take us back to a simpler time in Texas, as a home-grown musical returns home with verve and charm, guaranteeing an enjoyable evening.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas continues through June 17 at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-558-2600 or visit the TUTS Web site. Tickets start at $24.

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Jim Tommaney