By reputation, Texas is a place of big, boisterous types, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas does nothing to disavow that particular mark: from side-stepping politicians to crusading reporters to the flamboyant whores themselves, there's hardly a person who isn't larger than life, with the bluster to match their personality. Consequently, it's the Walterdale production's biggest flaw that it can't quite live up to the world the script creates.
The struggles become evident early on, in the form of opening numbers "20 Fans" and "A Lil' Ole Bitty Passant Country Place": meant to both set the tone and introduce us to the Chicken Ranch, the titular, long-tolerated whorehouse quick to become the center of a moral controversy, they both suffer from singers who get overpowered by the live music behind them. That's no small issue considering the latter is sung by Miss Mona (Mary E Stevenson), who has to carry a lot of the early going, to say nothing of getting us on the side of the whorehouse. David Johnston's moral crusader Melvin P Thorpe has much more charisma—and not just because of his sequined suits—to say nothing of Andrea L Graham's housemaid Jewel, who gives the act's best vocal performance in "24 Hours of Lovin'."
The down-home twang of the music is enough to give the numbers some energy, if not heaps of personality, but what's created there is generally doused by performances that tend to be a half-beat behind where they should. There are some welcome exceptions—Kate Toogood really gets the awkward humour of new prostitute Shy, and Clyde Rigsby and Robert MacDougall have a certain crotchety charm as a couple of town leaders—but most of the first act is typified by the relationship between Mona and Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Dan Fontaine): they obviously like each other's company, but the just-off notes of their conversation feels more like idle porch-talk between strangers than the banter of two folks with a long history.
Things do, fortunately, pick up in the second act, beginning with a terrifically fun rendition of "The Sidestep," with Gary Carter nailing the greasy puffery of a politician dangerously close to having to make a decision. For the most part, though, this is also a quieter and more melancholy act, and the slower pace fits better with this cast's talents. Fontaine gives "Good Ol' Girl" a bit of a sad bastard vibe that helps to overcome some of the flatter aspects of his relationship with Miss Mona up to that point, and the whorehouse goodbye "Hard Candy Christmas" brings out the best of the female ensemble, although damned if I know exactly what that expression is supposed to mean. The first act still drags too much for the production to be completely saved, but at least they end on a high note. V
Thu, Jul 8 – Sat, Jul 17 (8 pm)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Directed by Kristen Finlay
Book by Larry L King, Peter Masterson
Music and lyrics by Carol Hall
Walterdale Playhouse (10322 – 83 Ave), $14 – $18