High kicks barely get off ground

May 09, 2002|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The chief selling point of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, currently at the Lyric Opera House, is the much-belated stage debut - and well-preserved, 61-year-old figure - of movie and nightclub star Ann-Margret. What you're looking at amounts to a former sex kitten now running the cathouse in this enjoyably silly 1978 Broadway musical.

But is that enough reason to open your wallet? You see, while it's a treat to watch a movie star encased in shimmering Bob Mackie gowns cut down to here and up to there, you'll also notice that Ann-Margret gives a technically proficient but emotionally disengaged performance.

She moves about the stage cautiously, and often doesn't move at all. If her intention is to be a somewhat stately madam, the result seems more like an audition for a place at Madame Tussaud's wax museum. This is not a good thing in a musical about high-spirited hookers and high-kicking cowboys.

Although the overall production is sufficiently lively to offer audiences a toe-tapping good time, it's not encouraging that its star barely taps her toes until finally cutting loose with some actual dance steps during her curtain call.

At least Ann-Margret's voice delivers. It's not in the service of a fully developed characterization, but it's such a sultry voice you can easily be seduced by it. And when her whorehouse-managing character, Miss Mona Stangley, sings a couple of melancholy ballads, "Bus From Amarillo" and "A Friend to Me," you hear hints of the heartfelt performance perhaps still gestating underneath those sequined gowns.

Still, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is so darned good-natured that it almost doesn't matter here.

Based on a 1974 Playboy magazine nonfiction article by Larry L. King (not to be confused with the talk-show host), the script by King and Peter Masterson concerns a Texas town populated by twang-drawling near-cartoons; typical of them is Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Gary Sandy), whose blustery personality is the community norm. The story, such as it is, involves a media-savvy moral crusader trying to shut down Miss Mona's place.

The characters themselves seem to realize that their melodramatic exchanges are just an excuse to get into composer and lyricist Carol Hall's catchy tunes. When so many Texans on stage are whooping their way through "A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place" or "Texas Has a Whorehouse in It," you can't help but smile.

Several of the supporting performances also offer plenty to smile about and, yes, even some moments of pathos. Musical highlights include Miss Mona's plain-talking assistant, Jewel (Avery Sommers), explaining "Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin'"; a cafe waitress, Doatsy Mae (Roxie Lucas), whose song "Doatsy Mae" is a tribute to women who pour coffee for a living; and a prostitute named Angel (Terri Dixon), who joins several of her colleagues to comment on tough times in "Hard Candy Christmas."

The largely capable cast is not always well-served by an on-stage band that tends to be shrill and could use more, um, body. Likewise, the choreography is disappointing. The show's original choreographer, Tommy Tune, gave it a lot of cowboy-booted kick back in the late '70s. You can still sense it in the one number still partly credited to Tune in the current production, "The Aggie Song," in which a football team demonstrates winning moves.

The rest of the dancing in this production is credited to director / choreographer Thommie Walsh, whose ideas seem relatively pedestrian; this is surprising, considering Walsh served as a co-choreographer on the original Whorehouse. Although Miss Mona's girls move more than she does, their bumps and grinds don't add up to much.

Musical

What: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: $20-$63.50

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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