‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ stomps its way into political discourse

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When going to a 1970s musical about a “whorehouse” in Texas, one expects big hair, cowboy boots and slightly regressive attitudes toward lesbians. What one might not expect is a well-aged and upsettingly timely musical that seems to be in direct conversation with the headlines of today.

42nd Street Moon’s production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” was a celebration of women’s sexuality in whatever form it may take and an indictment of the men in power who try to control it.

The show follows Miss Mona (Dylan McBride) during the late 1970s as she runs a brothel (or the Chicken Ranch) in Gilbert, Texas. Trouble arises when Melvin P. Thorpe (DC Scarpelli), a sensationalist reporter, decides to set his sights on Mona. His watchdog television program stirs up the whole state in a moral and political crusade against the Chicken Ranch that the women there are helpless to stop.

Almost all of the women characters in the show were sex workers or former sex workers, with a few notable exceptions. Jewel (Doris Bumpus), offered a welcome expansion of what women’s sexuality can look like. During one of her, and one of the show’s, shining moments — in the song “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’ ” — Jewel sings about how she is going to spend her day off having sex with her partner. The women in the Chicken Ranch offer her backup vocals and choreography in unified support.

Doatsy Mae (Taylor Bartolucci) is a waitress at the town’s cafe. Despite her choice to be a waitress instead of working at Mona’s, she is still stepped over and disregarded by the men in town, as she laments in the song “Doatsy Mae.”

The show struck the perfect balance between heartfelt and campy, offsetting goofy and country-heavy songs such as “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place” with more grounded songs such as “Girl You’re a Woman.”

“The Aggie Song” featured tremendous choreography as the young Aggie men geared up for a night at Mona’s. The men flipped and line danced in cowboy boots and hats until they were red in the face, stomping on the stage and yipping loudly to the music.

In contrast with more widespread narratives stigmatizing sex work, with the saintlike Miss Mona at the head of the house, she met each of the women with individual care and compassion. Just as quaint and homey as the name ironically implies, Mona’s house allows the women in the house to have agency over their bodies, expression and sexual interactions. McBride, whether she be in a red velour jumpsuit or an A-line skirt with cowboy boots, exuded maternal energy with a buttery smooth voice to match. McBride was a perfect foil to the hokey Melvin P. Thorpe. Scarpelli was larger than life as Thorpe, commanding every moment he was on stage and making it a comical one.

The group of women living in the house had extraordinary chemistry, both interpersonally and vocally. The song “Hard Candy Christmas” was the strongest performance — stripped of intensive choreography or spectacular costumes, the women harmonized beautifully, sitting on their suitcases and looking into the audience as the show reached toward a heart-wrenching finale.

At the end of it all, the women of Gilbert lost. There was no great triumph over the men in power, and the women who were able to carve out an empowering space for themselves had that space senselessly ripped from them simply because it could be.

Despite all the loss, the musical still offers insight into a different kind of world and draws into sharp focus the obstacles that keep us from it. “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” solves the age-old debate that you can, in fact, make a point while line dancing.

Kate Tinney covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.