Entertainment » Theatre

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Oct 10, 2018
Michael Ray Wisely and mainstay Dyan McBride in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" at the Gateway Theatre through October 21.
Michael Ray Wisely and mainstay Dyan McBride in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" at the Gateway Theatre through October 21.  

"The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas" opened to a crowd that actually heckled the artistic directors before the show even started on Saturday.

It was good-natured heckling, of course. But before long you couldn't help but wish that some of that edgier attitude could bleed over a bit into the show itself, which seemed more kitschy than racy over the course of more than two hours.

For the record, we don't really approve of the casual use of the word "whore" in reference to sex workers. But this show opened in 1978, and Broadway is sort of like certain relatives at Thanksgiving whose comments you just let slide sometimes.

In "Best Little," homespun brothel keeper Miss Mona (42nd Street Moon mainstay Dyan McBride, who brings soaring vocal power to the part but comes off as sort of a ghostly imitation of Dolly Parton) runs the Chicken Ranch — so called since the days when Depression-era guests sometimes resorted to paying with poultry.

This is actually based on a real rural brothel in La Grange. "A Lil Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place" as the book by Carol Hall calls it.

At first it looks like "Best Little" is going to be about the women, as two newcomers show up seeking jobs coincidentally on the same day. Angel (Ashley Garlick) is an old hand, while naif Shy (Madison Genovese) is a recent runaway.

Genovese in particular is fun, with all of the clumsy forthrightness she brings to the part. But the show mostly neglects both after the introductions are done, although it does take time to subject Shy to a makeover song ("Girl, You're a Woman) so patronizing that it actually includes the lyric, "She'd be pretty if only she'd try."

On the subject of lyrics that haven't aged well, the amped-up high school football team boasts about their planned Chicken Ranch escapades ("The Aggie Song") by saying they're going to, "whomp and stomp" and that the women will "never be the same." Yikes.

Someone will surely accuse of being too sensitive. But it's not just a few tone deaf lyrics that make "Best Little" feel like an anachronism; though director/choreographer Christina Lazo tries to keep the show brassy and high-spirited, the winking comedy seems more chintzy than cheeky, like a faded billboard.

And yet, it's not as if Lazo and cast don't know what they're doing. Consider Brian Watson (also the scene designer) and his second act opener as a tap-dancing governor with the world's smarmiest expressions. It collapses the house.

DC Scarpelli transforms into the sheer embodiment of manic camp in his scenes as a moralizing TV anchorman.

And even small things are worthy of big laughs, like the self-loathing expression on the cue card guy during the TV segments.

But too much of "Best Little" is languid, relying on the appeal of inherent scrappiness that just isn't much there. Even more than an hour in, it feels as if the show has barely gotten started.

What does pull "Best Little" up by its bootstraps in the end is, in fact, the end. Those not familiar with the show may be shocked by its melancholy conclusion, which the ensemble here renders particularly touching.

Michael Ray Wisely (recently Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream at Cal Shakes") offers the show's most nuanced and convincing Texas accent as a (possibly crooked? Hard to tell) good old boy sheriff.

But he also brings its best moment of sincere gravitas with the sorrowful solo "Good Old Girl," which could soundtrack any number of real-life heartbreaks just as effectively.

It would be nice if "Best Little" gave more serious attention or even just better laughs to the many women roles, and if it didn't feel so definitively mired in the '70s, and even if it was just shorter, tighter, and punchier.

But it does do a surprising number on your heartstrings if you stick it out.

"The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas" plays through October 21 at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, go to 42ndstmoon.org.

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