- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2001

''The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" has set up shop on Pennsylvania Avenue at the National Theatre.
This national touring production, which leaves for Atlanta after May 20, casts the luscious Ann-Margret, now 60, as its star.
Set in the 1970s, "Whorehouse" is the story of a bordello in the small Texas town of Gilbert. Here Miss Mona (Ann-Margret) reigns, clad in long silk peignoirs and slinky, bright-colored gowns with deep cleavage and risque skirt slits, adorned by boa scarves. In the role of the madam, Ann-Margret oozes style and class in costumes created by Bob Mackie.
"Whorehouse" opens with a narrator clad in a white suit, with a newspaper tucked under his arm fittingly, because hes the towns newspaper editor. He is the observer and objective voice; he tells of the little whorehouse that once was and its demise.
The plot is a hodgepodge of often-told stories of abusive and hypocritical politicians, single-minded media, country vs. city and the differences between the sexes.
The bordello is dubbed the "Chicken Ranch" because customers paid in poultry during the Depression era rather than the $3-per-visit fee. The Chicken Ranch is an institution in Gilbert, but the Watchdog, played by Melvin Thorpe, goes on a crusade to close it after getting wind that "Texas has a whorehouse in it."
Mr. Thorpes character is based on a Texas reporter, Marvin Zindler, who closed the real Chicken Ranch and still crusades nightly about issues on Houstons ABC affiliate. The legacy of "Whorehouse" was so strong that one of the nations few legal bordellos, just outside of Las Vegas, uses the name.
The plot thickens when the TV reporter stomps into Gilbert asking questions of the weak-minded mayor. Hes more or less thrown out of town as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd curses and threatens him and fires his gun until everyone runs off stage.
The sheriff, played by Gary Sandy, is perhaps the most likable character in "Whorehouse." He has had feelings for Miss Mona since the day she first came to town, after running away from her home in Amarillo. When they were younger, the two took a trip together and watched President Kennedys inauguration speech a moment they both remember well but never discuss.
Mr. Sandy, who resembles an older Sean Penn, does a wonderful job of playing the sheriff. His emotions are made plain through body language that is remarkably well-spoken. The audience can read his every thought without his uttering the words.
The first half of "Whorehouse" opens with many pounds of flesh being shown and rowdy scenes. Thommie Walshs choreography of the musical is well-done, and the props are clever. A scene before a football game shows six cheerleaders with china-doll complexions, blue eyes and curly blond hair. They have on each side a doll with the same look. The legs move about, and the girls are able to move these props about, swamping the stage with the idea of the every-good-Texan-girl look.
The second half of "Whorehouse" introduces the Texas governor and explores the character of Senator Wingwoah, played by Matt Landers. The senator is caught with his pants down at the Chicken Ranch (the night he pays for the high school football team to spend the night there). He ends up suggesting he was drugged and taken to the Chicken Ranch without his knowledge.
Ed Dixon is wily and convincing as the governor, who wears a straw hat and smokes short, fat cigars. He waves a righteous finger around the moment TVs Thorpe raises the question of the Chicken Ranch.
From there, the pressure comes down to Gilbert, where half the residents want the bordello closed and the rest want to make it a national historic site.
Ultimately, every cast member goes a different way as the story unravels. Ann-Margret has the honors of the last solo song, "A Friend to Me," which she performs perfectly in a throaty, whispery voice.
Although "Whorehouse" is catchy and entertaining, it does not rank along with the best that has been performed on Broadway (where it had a long run in the late 1970s and 1980s). The music and lyrics leave a bit to be desired: No popularly recognizable tune has come out of "Whorehouse."
The play is just under 21/2 hours, with the first half being much longer than the second. The better dancing is before intermission, while the tunes of Act 2 are better. Although the first half gives the audience background and understanding of the characters, the second part jumps right to the action.

WHAT: "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"
WHERE: The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through May 20
TICKETS: $35 to $75
PHONE: 202/628-6166


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