members of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ensemble Watching the cast perform in the Timber Lake Playhouse's production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is like witnessing a mass exodus on the last day of the school year; the actors appear so excited about their newfound freedom that they can barely contain themselves.

Of course, as this summer-stock ensemble is mostly composed of college and university students and recent graduates enjoying a summer "vacation" at this theatre in the woods, their exuberance is perfectly understandable. But I'm guessing that audience members will leave the production feeling exactly the same way; by the time the show received its ecstatic standing ovation on Saturday night, it felt like the first day of summer for all of us.

Granted, I was predisposed to have a good time even before this musical comedy started, as a quick skim through the program revealed which talents from Timber Lake's 2006 season were returning for 2007. Artistic Director Brad Lyons is back, blessedly, and James Beaudry - who in last season's Thoroughly Modern Millie and Urinetown was responsible for some of the most deliriously enjoyable choreography I've ever seen - is back, too, serving as Whorehouse's director/choreographer. (He also dances, in a towel, as one of the show's football-playing horn-dogs.)

Sarah Dothage - that lovely, assured redhead with the ravishingly clear soprano - is again with the company, a thrill to those of us who loved her in Millie and the slapstick farce Tom, Dick, & Harry. And speaking of that hysterical production, I spent time on my drive to the theatre thinking that if even one of Tom, Dick & Harry's titular trio (Courtney Crouse, Ben Mason, and Justin Sample) returned this year, I'd be pretty damned happy; imagine how happy I was to realize they'd all returned. (At least for the time being: Crouse and Sample are listed as "guest artists" this summer.)

The participation of all of these wonderfully inspired Timber Lake veterans filled me with anticipation even before the house lights dimmed, and that's not even considering the company's hiring of Cassandra Marie Nuss, whose radiance was felt on the other side of the state line last summer in the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's productions of Anything Goes, Incredible Sex, and Cabaret.

Such high hopes invariably lead to disappointment. But once the show started, it took all of three minutes to realize that I would not be disappointed, as Beaudry established - and sustained - an infectiously playful atmosphere, and the cast members demonstrated the sort of vocal, comedic, and even dramatic confidence that area audiences are treated to all too rarely. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is about as sensationally entertaining as one could hope for, and my new hope is that, over the course of the next five shows this season, the Timber Lake company somehow finds ways to match it.

The production - buoyed by Kristina May's gloriously tacky '70s-era costumes and Joseph C. Heitman's cleverly minimalist set design - is all the more impressive for being such a noticeable improvement on the material. Set in 1973, and based on actual (exaggerated) events surrounding the closing of the beloved bordello The Chicken Ranch, Whorehouse features a goodly share of peppy tunes and frequently amusing redneck humor, but the lyrics don't share the bounce of the score, and there's something a little unseemly - in 2007, at any rate - about its cadre of happy-go-lucky prostitutes and the forced pathos attached to them; the show is a boot-kickin' empowerment fantasy about subjugation, to which I say: Yipes.

Yet damned if this ensemble doesn't pull this conception off, and pull it off with absolute fearlessness. Nuss and Crouse - as bordello madam Mona Stangley and kindly sheriff Ed Earl Dodd - deliver punchlines with understated aplomb, but their magnificence here lies in their being so real. Rather than sidestep the somewhat heavy-handed poignancy of their characters, Nuss and Crouse embrace it, investing their roles with such hard-won authority and grace that they fully transcend stereotype. (In the wordless scene in which Dodd informs Mona of the ranch's imminent closing, Nuss' devastation, apparent in the tiniest tightening of her facial muscles, is truly heartbreaking.)

And the cast members who do play up their roles' stereotypical qualities do so with a feverish vigor that is, in itself, a form of transcendence. As the frenzied televangelist Melvin P. Thorpe, Jeremy Day provides sublimely self-righteous indignation, and Sample, trading barbs with the terrifically aggrieved Tanner Bollinger and Zack Powell, again proves himself a miraculous comedian; as the apoplectic Mayor Poindexter, he enacts slow burns so hilariously incendiary that the other characters should greet him wearing oven mitts.

Mason is a thrillingly shifty governor - the character's much-loved "Sidestep" number features some of Beaudry's most imaginative choreography - and Samantha Joy Dubina, as the slow-witted, big-hearted waitress Doatsy Mae, stuffs Whorehouse in her apron and strolls off with it; Dubina is so wonderfully empathetic and charmingly goofy that if they could, the audience, en masse, would likely adopt her.

There are so many more performers to praise and not nearly enough space to do justice to them all, so let me just mention the equally committed and ceaselessly spirited contributions of Dothage (effortlessly touching as the definitive hooker with the heart of gold), Wynter Spears (whose "24 Hours of Lovin'" solo is a beaut), Jacqui Pugh (her riveting naturalism giving way to sassy abandon), and David Murray (brashly confident and satirically suave), and wait for them - and the other members of Timber Lake's already-thrilling ensemble - to give me even more chances to rave about their gifts. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has started Timber Lake's summer on an intimidatingly high note, and if this show is any indication of how my summer "vacation" at the playhouse will be spent, I'm dreading September already.


For tickets, call (815) 244-2035.

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