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'Best Little Whorehouse': Unrisque Business : The Fullerton Civic Light Opera production is a bit too tame, although it succeeds in creating the brothel's look and surrounding environs.

July 20, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — The Fullerton Civic Light Opera was reportedly so worried about the sauciness of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" that it pruned most of the dirty words and warned subscribers about the musical's suggestiveness. Only in Orange County.

Despite this bit of pre-show nervousness, director Lara Teeter assured everybody that the production's raciness would be in place--at least the costumes were bound to be sexy. He's right; they sort of are. It's just too bad little else is.

The revival that opened at the Plummer Auditorium over the weekend makes you wonder why season ticket-holders had to be notified in the first place. This is a tame staging that could use more than hot outfits; it craves a flush of winking salaciousness.

Sure, we're offered a glimpse of skin, even a derriere now and then, but it's only a bottom-jerk reaction to the show's country-fried primal impulses.

The 1978 musical celebrates the "Chicken Ranch," a historic Texas brothel that took its name because post-Depression patrons were allowed to pay for services with poultry. The cathouse had flourished since the 1840s but ran into trouble in 1973 when a TV evangelist and his local-yokel vigilantes, "The Watch Dogs," managed to shut it down.

This show by Carol Hall (music and lyrics) and Peter Masterson and Larry L. King (book) doesn't rise beyond the mediocre--unspectacular tunes and a predictable story line--but it proved popular, running for more than 1,500 performances on Broadway. And it took to the big screen in the 1982 movie with Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

The Fullerton staging is most successful in creating the brothel's look and surrounding environs. The sets, borrowed from the Riverside Civic Light Opera, may not be original, but they are professional and more than satisfy the musical's needs. The Chicken Ranch parlor, with its slightly gaudy visuals and peeks into the welcoming darkness of the back rooms, is the much-used centerpiece.

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Give lighting designer Donna Ruzika much of the credit for bringing an occasional whiff of decadence to the production. At times, the lighting seems downright smoky, just like any good red-light district is suppose to be.

Then there are Mela Hoyt-Heydon's costumes, a grab bag of fishnet, leather fringe and chaps, and snuggly tight bodices. Not as risque as touted, but they do draw the eye.

"Whorehouse" stars Eileen Barnett as Miss Mona, the ranch's madam. Barnett, who's appeared in several TV programs, including "Knots Landing," plays the role of the knowing courtesan well enough but could bring more heat to the characterization.

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This would especially help in sparking a flame between Mona and Darrell Sandeen's Sheriff Dodd, the sympathetic lawman who once was her lover. Sandeen has the gritty looks and style of a veteran desert rat, but that only goes so far here. He does have one of the show's more interesting singing voices, though.

For straightforward gag-relief, the Light Opera turns to B.W. Wiff as the pompadoured Melvin P. Thorpe. His caricature of the preacher who's eager to bring down the ranch once and for all is as broad as a Texas landscape--in other words, the kind of yuk-yuk clown endemic to so many comic musicals.

* "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," Plummer Auditorium, 220 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. and this Sunday at 7 p.m. Ends July 31. $13-$26. (714) 879-1732. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Eileen Barnett Miss Mona

Darrell Sandeen Sheriff Dodd

B.W. Wiff Melvin P. Thorpe

Tanya Montgomery Jewel

Griff Duncan Gov. C.J. Scruggs

Lisa Richard Doatsey Mae

Tracy Rowe Angel

Theresa Finamore Shy

Cliff Rolfe Mayor Rufus Poindexter

Richard Clave Senator J.T. Wingwoah

Glenn Freeze Edsel Mackey

Ron Peterson Chip Brewster (and other roles)

A Fullerton Civic Light Opera production. Music and lyrics by Carol Hall, book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson. Directed and choreographed by Lara Teeter. Costumes: Mela Hoyt-Heydon. Lighting: Donna Ruzika. Sound: Nelsonics. Musical director: Grant Rohr. Stage manager: Donna R. Parsons.

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