BY SANDY STAGGS
Upstate theatre this summer can be summed up in one word: WOMAN.
I am a woman, hear me roar
in numbers too big to ignore.
– Helen Reddy
Prospera (yes, a gender switch) in The Tempest in the park, a lesbian protagonist in Fun Home last month in Spartanburg, Heathers in Anderson, Annie Get Your Gun in Pelzer, and now a trio of strong women roles from Glow Lyric Theatre in Greenville – The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, My Fair Lady and Carmen – portend an unprecedented representation of woman on and behind our local stages.
Miss Mona in Glow’s classy and classically-risque The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is not your typical heroine. After all, as a lady of the evening, Miss Mona (Nikki Yarnell) practices the world’s oldest profession. At least she used to, before being handed the keys to the Chicken Ranch in Gilbert, Texas in gratitude by the former lady of the house for Mona’s longtime “services.”
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is one of those works in which the bawdy title alone is guaranteed to bring box office diamonds and tiaras. And director and co-founder of Glow, Jenna Tamisea Elser, delivers a show that loves up to its provocative name and brimming with sex appeal, one helluva funny script, occasional bawdiness, one naked bottom, slinky lingerie, one incredible cast and a live country Chicken Ranch Band to boot.
This musical also boasts music and lyrics written by a woman, Carol Hall, who just died last December. Based on a true story, the book was penned by Texas magazine writer Larry L. King and Peter Masterson.
Glow Executive Director and Music Director Christian Elser plays the Bandleader and narrator of our true tale about a whorehouse facing closure, and the madam’s romance with the local sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Shawn Hardee) who has his sights on the state legislature.
Enter TV evangelical reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (Dave LaPage in a magnificent performance) and his war on the Chicken Ranch and politicians all the way to the Governor’s mansion. LaPage, accompanied by the Thorpe Singers and the Dogettes is a beacon-hybrid of car salesman and Jimmy Swaggart damnation comedic rhetoric in the foot-stomping number “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It.”
Yarnell is a confidant classy Mona, and has complete reign over any scene she is in such as Mona’s pitch for the Chicken Ranch and her Ten Rules for her Girls in the hilarious A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place. Vocally, she thrives in solos like Girl, You’re a Woman and leads her Girls in the heartbreaking number Hard Candy Christmas, that morphed into an annual hiday classsic by Dolly Parton who starred in the 1982 film version with Burt Reynolds.
Mona’s Girls are scantily clad by costumer Ida Bostian and played by some familiar faces: Ginger (the fabulous Maddie Tisdel); Ruby Rae (the incredible Celia Blitzer); Taddy Jo (Antoinette Hall I know from Centre Stage productions); longtime Glow performer Rebekah Payne as Beatrice; Megan Noelle (from Greenville Theatre); Angel (AJ Trinci); Miranda Lee as Shy; Whitney Daniels as Linda Lou; Lexi Fazzolari; and Hillary Schranze as Duria.
There is a heapin’ helping of standouts from supporting performers as well including The Sidestep by one of Greenville’s top character actors Bruce Meahl as the Governor of Texas perfecting the art of avoiding the question like a true seasoned corrupt politician. Mary Evan Giles as local diner waitress (Butter, Sugar, Flour.) Doatsy Mae has som eof the best one-liners in the play and brought the house down on opening night with her moving rendition of Doatsy Mae.
As did Candace Spencer as Jewel (Miss Mona’s assistant) in her rollicking belt of Twenty Four Hours of Lovin’, a song about spending some time alone with her husband and making the most of it.
Some other featured performers you may recognize include Libby Riggins, Aaron Pennington, Stephen Harris, Susan Clark and the one and only Jonathan Kilpatrick as the local newspaper editor.
We don’t really get to hear Hardee sing until almost act three of the play in Good Old Girl. He is a very capable actor/singer, but by this point in the story, with so little character development (not to mention his endless streams of Goddamns, I didn’t sense any chemistry with Yarnell’s towering Mona and wondered why she would wait 20 years for this fellla.
And I did have a flashback to Gunsmoke and Miss Kitty when I first saw Mona’s red/orange wig. Make no mistake. Miss Kitty may have loved Sheriff Matt Dillon but she did run a saloon and whorehouse.
The vast and spacious set design by Converse College professor Meg Tominaga yields multiple levels and platforms for Ms. Elser’s racy tableaus and freezes.
But The Sidestep and the infamous testosterone-fueled The Aggie Song as the winning college football team changes clothes in the locker room, dances a bit, and anxiously awaits to get to the Chicken Ranch (50 miles to Heaven) are both crammed into a very small space downstage left which gets complicated with a staggering 35 cast members, The Aggies (only six of them) sound and look great but can’t create the true erotic impact the number should have with little to no space to move. And the show could always use another shirtless football player.
For a look at how the original THE AGGIE SONG was choreographed by Tommy Tune, check out this heavily censored performance at the 1979 Tony Awards. https://youtu.be/wbxkV5phyxo
And the only spoiler I will spill is that the film version ending is different from the original Broadway ending. Nuff said.
For tickets to THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS and other shows in rep, visit Glowlyric.com