The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the late ’70s musical getting an entertaining staging at URI Theatre (through December 10), is quite a curious little time capsule. Middle-aged Middle America was all atwitter with whispers of that Sexual Revolution they’d been reading so much about, so the time was ripe for a comedy about the world’s oldest business opportunity.
It was based on an actual place called the Chicken Ranch, in La Grange, Texas, which inspired a short story by Larry L. King, who co-wrote the musical with Peter Masterson. Music and lyrics for the 1978 Broadway hit were by Carol Hall; the dinner theater harmlessness of the show is indicated by the fact that she went on to write songs for Sesame Street and also penned Rosie Grier’s “It’s All Right to Cry” on the children’s album Free to Be . . . You and Me.
Actually, the creators of the musical deserve credit for their dexterity in juggling so many hot potatoes in a show designed for general, churchgoer consumption. It’s almost as though they had parochial school productions in mind.
At heart is a kind of love story (okay, fond story, on his part), between the place’s Madam, Miss Mona (Leah H. Kolb), and the sheriff protecting her, Ed Earl Dodd (Dan DaCunha), who were played by Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in the 1982 movie. This musical has a lot to pack in, so first we think it’s the story of two newcomers to the ranch. Hitting town at the bus station, runaway teenager Shy (Virginia Rexrod) asks Angel (Dana Merson) where the Chicken Ranch is because she’s dressed like she might know.
The Madam With a Heart of Gold offers to lend Shy (nee Anna Merle Seltzer) $50 to go back home, if she has doubts. Miss Mona acquaints them with the rules and us with how life there is practically sweet and innocent. Not only are no drugs allowed but we are also to believe that there is no drinking. If that sounds credible, you might accept the notion that this is the only such establishment in the world that prohibits lesbian activity, since Miss Mona says that their sharing a bed is a firing offense. The musical manages to sell prurience and primness in the same package.
A crisis threatens to close the place when a zealous TV reporter who styles himself “Watchdog,” Melvin P. Thorpe (Patrick Bosworth), decides that ratings are more important than playing along with the hallowed local tradition. That provides opportunity for entertaining song and dance, as “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It” (shocked, shocked) gets reprised. The show doesn’t have any tunes you’ll likely hear whistled in a shower (Parton provided a mini-version of “I Will Always Love You” for the film), but “The Sidestep” is a candidate. It’s sung by the Governor (Patrick D. Cullen), and Cullen provides some very funny moves, under the choreography of Angelica Vessella, as the song explains how politicians avoid answering embarrassing questions.
As usual with college productions, satisfying performances can pop up at unexpected opportunities. For example, Elyssa Baldassarri as Doatsey Mae, the proprietress of the town coffee shop and gossip center, captures the character and our interest even before we hear her pleasant voice singing her namesake woulda-coulda lament of a small-town girl. For me, the funniest bit in the whole show was the throwaway interview with a cheerleader that Amanda Ruggiero knocks out of the park with the simple employment of squeaky enthusiasm and an impossibly wide smile that makes Julia Roberts looks like she’s sucking a lemon.