Friday, June 15, 2007

It’s not the best ‘Little Whorehouse’

Published in The News Tribune June 15, 2007

The best moments in Tacoma Little Theatre’s “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” are provided by the incomparable Stacie Calkins, by a horde of hulking football players, and by the sweet and haunting song “Hard Candy Christmas” as sung by a chorus of prostitutes.

Sadly, there are not too many more outstanding moments. “Whorehouse” is an entertaining show, but it is marred by some amateurish acting.

A director’s note in the program says that 18 of the 36 performers in the play are making their first appearance on the TLT stage, that three of them are performing for the first time on any stage and that four of the principal roles are being played by actors in their first leading or supporting roles. This lack of theatrical experience shows.

I would love to be more supportive. There is a need for venues that can nurture beginning actors. But when tickets are $22 a pop, the performances should be on a par with those at other theaters in the area, and this performance is not.

Karen Carr, in the lead role of Miss Mona, is convincing as the madame of the Chicken Ranch, the notorious house of prostitution in a small Texas town. She displays genuine love for her girls, and she has a nice voice with just a tinge of a country twang, which is perfect for the role.

Stacie Calkins as the housemaid, Jewel – a role made for a saucy woman – is perfect. Readers may recall that I picked her for best actor in a musical (female) in my “Critic’s Choice” column last year for her performance as Sarah in “Ragtime.” She also put on a show-stopping performance as Effie White in “Dreamgirls” at TLT. Here she is absolutely believable as the cheeky, self-possessed Jewel, and her powerful gospel voice with the soaring high notes again brings down the house.

Charles Ybarra struggles as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. In places he seems to recite his lines with no emotion, and when he does show emotion – especially anger; Sheriff Ed Earl’s character is written as an exploding cauldron of rage – it’s not strong enough or believable enough. Plus, throughout the play, there are strange pauses in his dialogue that may have come from struggling to remember his lines on opening night.

Elliot Wiener is also unfortunate in the role of Melvin P. Thorpe. Thorpe is supposed to be a caricature blend of revivalist preacher and radio announcer. This has to be a tough role for any actor to play, and Wiener simply does not pull it off. And he wears the most gosh-awful wig imaginable.

Other principal roles are those of the two new girls at the Chicken Ranch, Angel (Stephanie Leeper) and Shy (Cassie Collison). Both do credible jobs. Collison is especially good in her early scenes when she is painfully out of place in the whorehouse. Later, when she is supposed to have come out of her shell, she melds into the background. I wish she had been allowed to come forward a little more in the ensemble scenes. Leeper does come forward more after Miss Mona disposes of her overblown call-girl wig and attire, and she stands out in the ensemble scenes.

By far the funniest scene in the play takes place in the Texas A&M Aggies locker room with football players changing out of their uniforms and getting ready to go to the whorehouse for the first time. In “The Aggie Song,” they sing about how many miles they have to go before they get to heaven (the Chicken Ranch). After changing into their cowboy duds, they do a purposefully clunky dance reminiscent of the cowboy dances in “Oklahoma” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

The boys – Dave Calkins, Travis Hicks, Luke Johnsen, Joe Kelly and Tayler Richmand – are excellent here and in the choral part of “20 Fans, reprise.” Their dancing is side-splittingly funny. Sadly, the tawdry-looking screen that stagehands pull out to hide the boys’ supposed nakedness is terribly distracting. Surely they could have found a better way.

Finally, Anne Jones is outstanding in the very small part of Doatsey Mae the waitress, and the long denouement with the sad songs “Hard Candy Christmas” and “The Bus from Amarillo” are truly beautiful.

It is a flawed performance but has some really nice moments.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through July 1, ASL performance June 29
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma
TICKETS: $22 for adults, $20 for students, seniors and military, $18 for children 12 and younger
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281

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