Whorehouse on the prairie 

Musical gets a bang-up provincial treatment at UM

Every time the University drama/dance department stages one of its big musicals, I get greedy for more. How wonderful to live in a small town where we can see Three Penny Opera and Sweeney Todd, Cabaret and Oklahoma (stick around long enough and you can witness several productions of each). At first glance, these shows may seem unwieldy for a provincial company (as in, of the provinces, not as in hickish). The pleasing surprise is their level of skill and professionalism, the giddy payoff for the audience. This year’s grand spectacle is The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the musical by Carol Hall.

Whorehouse is gentle satire, meek even, and anyone who didn’t know Oklahoma and the canon of American musicals could quickly take it at face value for the stereotypical ideas it illustrates. A madam named Miss Mona runs an amiable whorehouse in a small Texas town; she protects her girls, she ministers to the needs of farmers and senators alike, she loves the sheriff but will never say it aloud, and the prostitutes love what they do. They love it! They couldn’t think of a better activity than having sex for money, which is just so much fun and such a happy endeavor!

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas belongs in the company of Risky Business in the literature of happy hookers, where prostitution looks adorable: women blessed to have a job where they can lie down and not have to worry about pantyhose. It promotes the man-pleasing myth that whores sit around on their off-time in silky bras and dream of the next john, the perfect gentleman.

Director Greg Johnson doesn’t comment much here, plays it pretty straight, forcing his female cast into kittenish poses and Playboy-cartoon mischief, and the cast is up for it. I wanted them to really throw themselves into it, since it was their assignment, but they showed a little modern hesitation (what self-respecting woman wouldn’t?) as they tried out their vamping before their first live audience on Monday night. It’s not easy looking comfortable descending a staircase in heels while grinding your hips at the same time.

The female company is matched by a male company of Texas football players. The Texas A&M Aggies’ big dance provides a great send-up of the square-dancing rancher choreography of Oklahoma. One of the best numbers, and certainly the most inventive, has this corps of winning jocks belting out their mighty cries of lust and triumph in the locker room in a sports striptease. Choreographer Daren A. Eastwold puts the men naked in showers, then dresses them all the way from towel to boots and hats as they ready themselves for their victory party at the whorehouse. This is a welcome counterpoint to the perpetually unclad hookers, and it levels the playing field a bit. After all, in Cabaret only the women spread-eagle their way toward nudity.

Eastwold is the sort of choreographer who makes me wish I could dance, and the show makes me wish real life let us all break into spontaneous ballet. I would like to feel the synchronized mayhem and frenzy of Eastwold’s dances, all of which pop right off the stage with jubilation in this show. He improvises on the country two-step as well as the band march, the jitterbug and the Charleston, and makes them all look bright and new. The dancers triumph with breakneck footwork, and bring the theater to life—a life blissfully removed from the current state of events back in the real world.

Musicals make the heart happy, and maybe that’s why these hookers feel so good. After all, it would be fun, an enormous, rollicking pleasure, to do what Eastwold told you to do, to sing as musical director David Cody instructed you. A few of the women in the cast are seasoned performers and dancers and a few of the men are spectacularly explosive in dance. The credits in the program identify them all as a chorus, so I can’t highlight the best performers, but you’ll know them when you see them. You won’t be able to keep your eyes off them.

Matthew T. Moisan exudes a velvety nostalgia as the Hank Williams-dressed band leader who steps downstage now and then to croon to the audience. Karen Jean Olds, thankfully, brings confidence and dignity to the role of the madam, her singing voice finding the right balance between long-term wisdom and world weariness (it’s how we want our madams to be, isn’t it?). Holly Hamper as the brothel housekeeper has a spectacular number that shows off her versatile voice. Tim Luoma is triumphant as the prying Geraldo. Carly Booth, pretty and quick with the wisecracks, is hardly the plain waitress she’s supposed to be, and she does a game job with a mediocre song.

The last dress rehearsal seemed a little frayed, the cast concentrating admirably hard on each number, but the numbers didn’t quite link to the interstitial scenes with snap. I suspect that a paying audience’s enthusiasm and the rigors of a few nights’ work will tighten this show perfectly. The glory of Whorehouse is in its company, and the production really zips when the stage is crowded with dancers, who seem genuinely ecstatic to be doing what they do. And ecstasy is the desired altered state of the American musical.

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