the chicken ranch girls
What usually happens to actors as they rise up the ranks of professionalism is that they begin to work with more established and seasoned directors. This is ironic because it is often the emerging actors who benefit the most from having a strong director’s vision to guide them through the labyrinths of the play. In a city like Halifax where actors find work sparse and tend to wait to join the Actors’ Union until later than their contemporaries in bigger cities, Community Theatre Productions like Dartmouth Players’ Production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, playing until November 25, 2012, tend to include a wide spectrum of experience in the cast. There is much in this production that is very strong, but I think in the hands of a more experienced director the show could have had a polish very close to professional caliber.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a 1978 musical written by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson with music and lyrics by Carol Hall which is based on a true story of the closing of The Chicken Ranch, a nearly one hundred year old brothel, that had been running in La Grange, Texas until it was shut down by the authorities, amid much hoopla, in 1973. The musical is problematic and clichéd in its glamorization and simplification of the lives and the intricate plights of prostitutes and has an abrupt and unsatisfying ending that seems inconsistent with the rest of the show, but in the right hands and with the right amount of glitz and flash and musical theatre cheese it can be a really honky tonk good time.
The story surrounds Miss Mona, the Madam of the Chicken Ranch, as she greets two new employees, Angel and Shy, while feeling the heat from Sheriff (and her former lover) Ed Earl Dodd, a sensationalist TV reporter, a senator and the governor of Texas all seeking their own interests at the expense of her livelihood. Nicole Moore plays Miss Mona and she has a beautiful voice, although she is about fifteen years too young for the part, she has a charisma and the sass to really do this part justice. The challenge is twofold, firstly, she has been directed to present her character toward the audience much more than to connect with the others onstage, which is continually problematic, and there is much room here for her to go bigger in every choice she makes, song she sings and line she says. Greg Alley is wonderful as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, he has really captured a fantastic rhythm of speech and a real intensity of being at the end of his rope, and his chemistry with Moore is palpable. Theresa Keefe gives the most refined performance as Doatsy Mae, the waitress with the heart of gold, and her song is the strongest ballad in the show. Sarah Mian plays Angel, the streetwise new recruit, with great gusto and she has a particularly lovely subtle scene on the telephone which utterly captivated me. Alanah White is Shy, the emotionally broken but initially innocent and nearly painfully awkward littlest prostitute, who makes the largest transformation throughout the show. Mian and White both give great performances here and ground their girls in a real sense of specificity that never feels forced.
There are some great performances as well from the ensemble Chicken Ranch Girls, including Marietta Laan, Karla Bruce, Schoel Strang and Catherine Alexander (who has an awesome Molly Shannon thing going on that I loved). I would have liked to see the girls remain onstage for much more of the show, especially because their gorgeous and powerful singing lost some of its tightness when they were offstage.
Ian MacDermid’s direction could benefit from a bit more emphasis on grounding the production in realism and encouraging the actors to root their energy in an emotional arc that grows and changes throughout the performance.
In all, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has some great moments and features a core group of actors brimming with potential who I look forward to seeing more from in the future.
Dartmouth Players’ The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas plays at The Crichton Avenue Community Centre (33 Critchton Avenue, Dartmouth) Wednesday November 21 to Saturday November 24 at 8:00pm with a matinee on Sunday November 25 at 2:00pm. Tickets are: Adult $17, Senior (60+) and Students $14 and are available by calling TicketPro at 1.800.311.9090, visiting this website or at the door before the performance (subject to availability).