America, America: ‘Carousel’ and ‘Best Little Whorehouse’

A pair of summer musical entertainments at Clackamas Rep and Broadway Rose reflect today's headlines

“Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress,” Charles M. Blow wrote in a Monday op-ed piece in the New York Times bemoaning the simultaneous shenanigans and torpor of the current do-nothing Congress. “Their full-time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.”

As it happens, I read Blow’s depressingly rational screed the morning after catching that grand old flimflam of a musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Broadway Rose, and I couldn’t help thinking, What else is new?

The women's chorus in "Best Little Whorehouse." Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The women’s chorus in “Best Little Whorehouse.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Whorehouse first opened on Broadway in 1978, and is based loosely on real events a few years earlier when a crusading television reporter started a campaign that finally shut the doors of the Chicken Ranch, a century-old institution of widely if reluctantly tolerated repute outside the rural town of LaGrange, Texas. The resulting political fallout, at least in the fictionalized version onstage, is less a matter of actuality than of appearances, which in the topsy-turvy world of politics have a way of becoming reality. Life has been rolling along pretty much as humanly usual, with most of the human appetites being accommodated in some sort of agreed-upon manner closely associated to a wink and a nod and a turning of official heads in the opposite direction. But times are changing. Raise enough of a stink and eventually someone’ll be forced to do something about it, not so much to stop the stink as to stop the noise and keep the incumbents safely in office.

Whorehouse isn’t the best musical to come roaring down the two-lane blacktop of rural Americana, but it knows what it wants to do and it does it well, and as I hadn’t seen it in a number of years I was happy to make its acquaintance again, especially in this agreeable production directed (as was Broadway Rose’s pert and winning revival of The Music Man earlier in the summer) by the stage-smart Peggy Taphorn. Like most musical comedies it’s really mostly about its surfaces, but it does make a difference what’s underneath, and Whorehouse survives partly because its book latches onto some enduring American themes: a strong libertarian bent, an equally strong moralistic fervor, a thirst for fame and power and the various pleasures of the flesh, and the destruction derby that occurs when the soft tissue of human desire meets the driving metal of religious extremism and unshackled careerism. The resulting ruckus brings to mind such political and religious fast-shuffle hall of famers as Wilbur Mills and Lyndon Johnson and Aimee Semple McPherson, and the shenanigans of such latter-day politician/entertainer/perpetrator/scolds as Michele Bachmann, Elliott Spitzer, Sarah Palin, Anthony Weiner, Glenn Beck, and that comeback champ Newt Gingrich. Ooh, they love to do the little sidestep: It’s like watching Molière performed on a pedal steel guitar.

I caught Whorehouse the day after seeing Carousel at Clackamas Rep, and except that both are pieces of American musical theater, you wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of crossover. Whorehouse is a romp, easy on the eyes and ears, with a score that’s catchy and not particularly difficult from a musical point of view. Carousel, though it’s performed less often than Oklahoma! and South Pacific and The Sound of Music, is a deep and potent and gnarly work – one of the finest achievements of the classic team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It made its debut in 1945, its book based on Ferenc Molnár’s bleak 1909 play Liliom, and its songs are as approachable as those in Whorehouse. But they’re also more sophisticated and musically demanding, often like operetta, though the story is much darker than that suggests. Still, the two musicals have similarities and intriguing contrasts, if not in the tone or the surface, then in the embedded ideas about the nature of American life.

Jenika Flynn as Louise in "Carousel." Photo: Meg Williams

Jenika Flynn as Louise in “Carousel.” Photo: Meg Williams

Clackamas Rep’s Carousel, directed by David Smith-English, is more uneven than Broadway Rose’s Whorehouse – the Whorehouse chorus and orchestra are much stronger – but it looks great and has several very good performances, and it burrows to the core of its tragic yet cautiously uplifting tale (Molnár’s original skips the uplift utterly; Rodgers and Hammerstein knew that’d never work on the musical-theater stage). Near the play’s end on opening night, at the high school graduation ceremony when Julie realizes that the spirit of her long-dead husband Billy has made a visitation and she joins the crowd in singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, you could’ve made a small mint selling disposable hankies. Nor was it cheap sentiment: the show fully earned the tears.

Billy Bigelow, the roughneck carnival barker whose vanity and destructive impulsiveness drive the plot, seems to have solid congressional credentials: like so many in the 113th Congress, his full-time job, in Blow’s words, seems to be “raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.” Unfortunately, his method of raising money is a touch extreme even by congressional standards: he plans to stick a shiv in the factory boss’s gut and steal the payroll. When his plot fails, he leaves his pregnant wife to fend on her own, is escorted to the back gates of Heaven, and allowed a chance to revisit earth for one day to see if he can do some sort of good. It’s a bit like Our Town: The Wrong Side of the Tracks.

Michael Mitchell brings a forced fierceness and appropriate befuddlement to Billy, stressing his emotional immaturity, but the true standouts in this cast are Dru Rutledge as the almost impossibly patient factory worker Julie, who marries Billy, and Cassi Kohl as impetuous Carrie, Julie’s best friend. Rutledge and Kohl carry the show musically, and they get fine support from, among others, veteran Tobias Andersen as the crackerbarrel-wise Starcatcher and town sawbones, Jenika Flynn as the daughter Billy never knew, and Doren Elias as the scheming old salt Jigger, the serpent in the garden of this unraveled Paradise on the New England coast. And it would be nigh unto criminal not to mention, again, Chris Whitten’s skills as a scenic designer. His stage is a fluid Erector-set construction, constantly moving to provide for shifts in the action, and his filigreed sculpture of the carousel itself is illuminating and elegant.

Old law meets new media in "Whorehouse." Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Old law meets new media in “Whorehouse.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Whorehouse has a breezy, easygoing feel, like a lightly satiric comic strip: think Al Capp and Li’l Abner. The trick is to make the characters feel like types but also like real, individual people, and Taphorn’s cast manages that neatly. Sharon Maroney, as Miss Mona, the Chicken Ranch madam, is as lived-in and durable as a good pair of boots. Miss Mona isn’t Shaw’s Mrs. Warren and she’s not Irma La Douce, but someone in between: she has both a heart and a balance book of gold. Colin Wood as Mona’s old friend and sometime lover, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, is a jackhammer of bafflement, like a Billy Bigelow who grew up enough to take on a heap of responsibilities but didn’t make it quite all the way to full adulthood. And terrific support comes from the likes of Dan Murphy as the carnival-huckster TV newsman Melvin P. Thorpe, Jim Peerenboom as the sidestepping governor, Claire Rigsby and Jennifer Davies as the Chicken Ranch recruits Angel and Shy, Brian Tennison as the genially corrupt Senator Wingwoah, Carmen N. Brantley-Payne and Emily Sahler in a couple of musical breakouts, and a full-on chorus line of Ranch girls and Aggie football players.

Directors Smith-English and Taphorn don’t mess with the time or setting of these two musicals, and I think that’s a good thing. The plays may be perennials, but they’re also time capsules, and seeing them in essentially their original forms allows their audiences to think about what’s been and what, if anything, has changed. Both plays deal, either comically or tragically, with the narrow-mindedness and religious zealotry of small-town American life. And both root themselves in the consequences of what’s being called these days the War on Women – so, again, what else is new?

In Carousel, Julie would never have lost her job if the factory’s owner hadn’t imposed a strict moral code on the women he was underpaying, imposing curfews and demanding virginal standards. And Julie and Billy’s daughter, Louise, who’s a natural free spirit, wouldn’t be an outcast except for the town’s rigidly moralistic attitudes. Domestic abuse is wincingly in evidence, along with the emotional confusion that goes with it: a slap, we’re told, feels like a kiss, and in the context of the scene it makes a scary kind of sense. Still, the play has an eloquence that amounts to genuine hopefulness: the best of small-town American values still are virtues; public life can still stumble toward betterment. By the time of Whorehouse, a more cynical mood’s settled in: don’t count on public institutions; what’s good and workable in life will only be found privately. In one sense Whorehouse remains a leering wink at the attractions of prostitution and presents Mona as a benevolent earth mama to her girls, protecting them from the double dealings of the outside world. But the play also makes clear that many of the workers at the Chicken Ranch arrived there as an escape from even worse situations. While life at the ranch surely wasn’t the cheerful sorority romp that the play depicts, it quite plausibly was a haven of sorts from an even tougher life on the outside.

Designer Chris Whitten's carousel lights up the stage. Photo: Meg Williams

Designer Chris Whitten’s carousel lights up the stage. Photo: Meg Williams

Small-town carousels are fewer and farther between, and the overriding attitude of Whorehouse seems more Molly Ivins than Rick Perry. But In 1945 or 1978 or 2014, a few things remain familiar. As in Carousel, employers can now reach deeply into the affairs of their employees’ private lives. And the hypocrisies so engagingly lampooned in Whorehouse remain thoroughly embedded in our court systems and what passes for public discourse. For evidence, take a look at a couple of stories from Tuesday’s edition of the New York Times. In one, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comments on the high court’s simultaneous liberalizing on gay rights issues and clamping-down on women’s rights. A second story depicts the battle to block stiff new standards designed to shut down abortion clinics in Texas, a state with 26 million people: If allowed to stand, the rules likely would leave just seven clinics still open, compared to 41 two years ago.

Yee-haw, folks. A slap is a kiss. Nothin’ dirty goin’ on.

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