Chicken blind

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

The Chicken Ranch girls aim to please in <i>Best Little Whorehouse</i>.

The Chicken Ranch girls aim to please in Best Little Whorehouse.

Photo By David Robert

Rated 2.0

Reno singer Cami Thompson glows on stage. The audience swoons at first sight.

Performing as the lovely, worldly wise madame Miss Mona in Riverfront Theatre’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Thompson’s voice ranges from silky smooth to guttural and earthy. When she appears in a sparkling blue gown, atop a fastidiously crafted two-story set, we anticipate great things.

Then Thompson descends the stairs and—at least to those of us in the fifth through seventh row of chairs lining the floor—she disappears. Sure, we can hear her voice and enjoy it. And if she’s standing, we can catch a glimpse of her face between the rows of heads that block our view.

By the end of the play, the folks in the back row are standing up.

To their credit, the Riverfront folk have been through the wringer this spring. They lost their venue at the Cal-Neva Nevadan and moved into the Pioneer Theater’s underground space. While rehearsing Whorehouse, they were also moving, painting, finagling finances.

So the production is a miracle of sorts. A recent Saturday’s performance plays to a full house. When the show begins, I realize I’m missing lots of sight gags. Those sitting in front are laughing.

I can’t see the actors or most of a restaurant set used in one early scene to introduce the audience to Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Gary Cremeans). Dodd doesn’t exactly have his hands full in this tiny Texas town, relates our narrator, Deputy Fred (Hal DuBiel looking appropriately red-necked). The sheriff’s biggest problems are dealing with lost pets (cue woman chasing her cat), and everyone remembers the time he convinced a mule to move from a woman’s auto: “You get your ass off that car.”

Sheriff Dodd doesn’t see any point in harassing the town’s illegal brothel (called the Chicken Ranch because it accepted poultry payments during the Depression years). The girls are good citizens who contribute to the sexual health and economy of the town. Miss Mona is a civic donor extraordinaire.

The brothel biz is threatened when a TV muckraker takes an interest. Self-proclaimed “watchdog” Melvin P. Thorpe is famous for nailing a candy maker for not putting enough nuts in its bars—"If it says 60 nuts on the wrapper, I wanna see 60 nuts inside, and I’m talking whole nuts, not partial nuts!”

Nutty well describes Thorpe, as played by Bill Tanner, who reminds me of Richard Simmons (or Disco Stu) geared up to sell, say, musical instruments for a River City boys’ band. Tanner’s over-the-top approach is pure hilarity, especially during the number “Texas Has a Whorehouse in It” as a choir chants, “Stop the copulation!”

If journalists come off looking idiotic, politicians don’t fare much better. Lloyd Stienman has us rolling as the Texas governor in “The Sidestep,” much of which was performed from atop the set’s second floor.

Too bad we couldn’t see every last inch of a rousing male striptease. Or most of Lori Marble’s performance as Shy in “Girl You’re a Woman.”

Before its next production, Barsanti promises, there’ll be new raised seating and new lighting and sound systems. “I never want to move again,” he says.

But for now, what you see is what you get.