Arts & Culture

Manatee Players musical is surprisingly touching

Anyone who has never seen "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" on stage are in for some pleasant surprises from the current production at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

People who know the 1982 movie version will be surprised by the last 20 minutes or so of the stage musical. The film tacked on a happily-ever-after romance that seems at odds with the story's intentions, and it cut the show's best song, "Good Old Girl." The film also added Dolly Parton's hit "I Will Always Love You." Those who have never seen any version of the show will probably be taken aback with how poignant the second act is.

The first, much longer, act of 'Whorehouse' is full of cliched characters -- the blustery Southern sheriff, the madam with the heart of gold, the pompous TV anchorman with a ridiculous toupee, the hypocritical politician -- plus bawdy jokes that are not very funny and lots of lively, catchy songs and dances.

But act two turns dark, with unexpectedly sad plot turns, real heartache and several hauntingly beautiful songs.

The Manatee Players production works mostly because that second act is staged and performed wonderfully.

The first part of the show is spotty. Most of the songs are nothing special and, on opening night at east, too much off the singing was off-key.

But that first act had some great moments, especially in a couple of ensemble numbers ("A Lil Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place" and "The Aggie Song," especially) and an absolutely lovely solo by Sarah Cassidy as Doatsey Mae.

The story, which is based on fact, revolves around an iconic Texas brothel. It's called the Chicken Ranch because customers had sometimes exchanged chickens for services.

Everyone knows about it. Senators bring college football players there as a reward, the sheriff gets regular freebies, wives turn a blind eye. But when a self-serving reporter brings it into the open, it looks as though the Chicken Ranch may have to close.

Act two is all about good-byes, as the Chicken Ranch girls fret about

their future (in the beautiful "Hard Candy Christmas," and the sheriff (Adam Baker) delivering a very sad song in which he reveals his feelings for the brothel's owner (played by Michele M. Spears).

The show's supposed to be a comedy, but the laughs are few, and the sad and quiet moments are the special ones.

The cast is large, and there are a few standout performances, including Baker as the sheriff, Cassidy in her small role and Phyllis Banks as Jewel.

Almost all the ensemble numbers featuring "the girls" score thanks to beautiful harmonies and some strong choreography by Rick Kerby, who also directed. There's a great dance number by the football players too.

The five-piece on-stage band is terrific, especially fiddle player Danny Blankenship, and the costumes by Becky Evans and lights by Joseph P. Oshry add significantly to the show's success.

Sound problems that have marred some recent Manatee Players productions are still evident. There was a painfully loud blast of feedback on opening night, and volumes were inconsistent, making some lyrics and dialogues hard to hear.

But the impression that lasts is of those lovely songs and the beautiful singing from the show's last half. The melodies, the tableaux and the performances stick in your head long after the dumb jokes from the first act are forgotten.

Details: Through Nov. 9, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $27-$37. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeplayers.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-707-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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