Texas has a whorehouse in it!
Or so goes the famously horrible key song from the oddly popular drip of staged Americana and sexual freedom known as "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Well, what place doesn't have one? Although, until today, the only brothel I was familiar with in the Orlando area involves a gym, rented "changing rooms" and my red-eyed boyfriend's double-secret membership card. Orlando has a bathhouse in it! Yee-haw.
If you didn't act in it in college, you probably best remember "The Best Little Whorehouse" as some strange musical film involving Burt Reynolds' toupee and Dolly Parton's breasts, all fine and dandy. With its inevitable revival (what isn't being revived?), the stage show recently landed at the Bob Carr with the sexy-but-60 Ann-Margret and WKRP In Cincinnati's tight-crotched, bell-bottomed middleman, Gary Sandy, taking up the reins. Polite anticipation -- the sort that means nothing -- wafts through the lobby, along with the tea-rose fragrances and age-coughs of Orlando's opening-night elite. I'm looking for trouble.
Bring on the whores!
Hell, I brought mine. Sporting a tweed jacket over his cheating heart, Mr. Wonderful is making me feel like a real, dressy-bessy theater matron. Only, my wallet's empty and he's not paying for anything. That's typically our arrangement.
"Wow, Ann-Margret's body looks great!" I nonsense.
"Girdle," he burps. We have a magical relationship.
With the air of detachment that comes from too many years being looked at, Ann-Margret saunters through her big-breasted role as madam Miss Mona as if every moment of her life is just a dress-rehearsal ... with a big dress. But unlike Parton, this pair of breasts offers no perky charisma. In its place we get deep-throated reserve.
Alternately, Sandy is a real rip-rooter as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, stuttering and bumbling through overwrought brimstone epithets with all the shake and spit of Yosemite Sam. He's out to save the whorehouse. Golly, we wonder why.
The shady plot unravels with a sort of X-rated, facts-of-life charm. Early on, one awkward hooker-to-be, simply called "Shy," is treated to a coming-of-age admonition titled "Girl, You're a Woman" just before her beauty makeover and requisite cherry pick. Sniffle, sniffle. I can't go on. Good lord, you know the story!
OK, maybe you don't. Scattered throughout are boys (the frequently naked football team), a crusading televangelist type, a slippery governor and some coy local folk, all revolving around a mild indiscretion in a small town pushed by television toward a new and embarrassed awareness. These things used to be secrets, you see (like Club Orlando, and my boyfriend's club membership).
The thin narrative leads to cast-off lines like, "I had a one way ticket to nowhere ..." being dragged out into three-minute anthems. Not to mention contortionism. You laugh, you cry, you occasionally touch yourself in a bad place. You leave.
Afterward, a cast party at The Veranda Bed & Breakfast in Thornton Park rattles with, "How'd you like it?" small talk and "It was great" insincerities. With no stars to be spotted, I sputter out of the mingle before they can wheel Ann-Margret in.
She already had refused an interview, anyway, citing some selective press-coverage situation that reeks of professional fear. (I wish.) But three cast members are available the next day for a sparsely attended meet-n-greet upstairs at the Barnes & Noble at Colonial Marketplace Plaza, and that's good enough for me.
"I don't think that society is more accepting of [the premise] now than it was back then," truths Avery Summers, who plays the hothouse house-lady Jewel, the assistant who enforces Miss Mona's strict rules of etiquette in the based-on-fact show that was first staged in the 1970s. Summers attributes the traveling revival's appeal to "Ann. I mean, people want to come and find out if she looks her age, how old is she, can she really stand up? I believe an awful lot of it is curiosity."
"I think there's also still a lot of titillation with the title," tits Rob Donohoe, the televangelist Melvin P. Thorpe. "We sort of had fun with it in Jacksonville, be-cause they weren't allowed to say it on the radio. So we had Gary Sandy do a radio commercial where he said, 'We're starring in The Best Little ... (beep, beep) ... in Texas. We're not allowed to say (beep).' It was funny."
"What I want to do is open it up to you guys," swings Mr. Moderator to a near-empty grid of folding chairs. All eyes go directly to me, innocently fiddling with my writing tool wedged up on the roof of my mouth. That's what whores do, right? I mean, write.
"I'm just biting my pen," I cower, hiccuping at my blissed-out lack of whore queries. They all continue staring.
"OK," I annoy. "When you're working with such an esteemed actress in a touring production, is there any pressure on the rest of the cast to simply hold the star up?"
"Well, it's a give and take," scowls Sommers, like a preacher to a whore.
I enjoy being a whore.