I used to think one answer to New York City's myriad financial difficulties might be the introduction of legalized gambling. But if legalization would result in more musicals like "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public," I am unalterably opposed to it.
Judging by the overamplified sound of slot machines that fills the Lunt-Fontanne before the show, "Whorehouse" is intended for high rollers en route to or from Atlantic City.
John Arnone's sets, with their rippling lights and neon in shades of red, blue and chartreuse, give Vegas tacky Broadway zing. Bob Mackie's costumes are so garish that what he has whipped up for Cher suddenly looks restrained and dignified. The exception is a series of black-and-white outfits for the girls on a lobbying trip to Washington, a chance for Mackie to exhibit sartorial wit.
If I have mentioned the visuals before delving into the content, it is perhaps because there isn't a whole lot of content. This is a pity, because the premise, based on an actual case, is quite promising. A Nevada brothel has gone bust, owing the IRS a fortune. The IRS takes over the management of the house to recoup some of its losses.
Rather than explore the possibilities, Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, who co-wrote the 1978 "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," have concocted cliched skits about bureaucrats and congressional hacks.
Much of the humor may have been gathered from comedy writers' wastebaskets, since it is not funny enough (a sketch about the President getting a haircut, for example) for any of the primetime comedy shows. The story itself is crudely told, with pathetic interludes in which a Vegas em-cee tells feeble jokes.
Tommy Tune's staging is astonishingly limp. At least when he is pretentious (as in "Grand Hotel" or "Nine"), his imagination makes clever leaps. The high point of his work here is a phone sex number in which the girls are swept around the stage in Lucite boxes by their clients, who then gyrate atop the boxes alternately grabbing their phones and their crotches.
Dee Hoty and Scott Holmes exude some swaggering charm in the two Carol Hall songs that rise above the hackneyed.
The original "Whorehouse" wasn't much, but its backwoods insult humor was disarming. The sequel is of interest only in setting new parameters for Broadway vulgarity.
Apart from Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather, Part 2" there hasn't been an artistically satisfying sequel since William Shakespeare added "Henry IV, Part II" to "Henry IV, Part 1."
And the various collaborators of "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" (sequel to the saga of that Texan version of the same musical establishment) are no Shakespeare's, and this ain't art. For that matter it ain't satisfying.
Now at the Lunt/Fontanne Theater, the new "Whorehouse" - times change, did you know that a few years ago newspapers were so squeamish over the word "whore" that many even bowdlerized advertisements for an Off-Broadway production of John Ford's 1630 tragedy "'Tis Pity She's a Whore"? - is based on a good idea. One even rooted in fact.
In Nevada, where brothels are legalized in certain areas, one house of fiscally dubious repute went bankrupt and was in effect taken over by the IRS. One hesitates to comment.
But that is the situation exposed but scarcely explored by this sequel to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," which employs the same creative team of Larry L. King and Peter Masterson for the book, Carol Hall for the music and lyrics, and, also as before, has been directed by Masterson and Tommy Tune, with choreography by Jeff Calhoun and Tune.
I wouldn't like to say lightning never strikes twice in the same place - but it hasn't this time around.
The first "Whorehouse," particularly in its original off-Broadway manifestation, had a certain brash and raunchy off-beat charm that has almost totally eluded this far grander and slicker successor.
The neon-plated glitz could make the tackiest Las Vegas motel seem a model of taste, and John Arnone's setting, while ingenious, is also, unfortunately, very ugly. The predictable costumes by Bob (Cher-bellybutton) Mackie show off everything they reasonably can.
A few of the songs by Carol Hill have a pleasing country lilt if little else, but others are so unmemorable that you feel the cast should be congratulated for remembering them.
And the book, chiefly concerned with the flagrant incompetence of the IRS and the prurient concupiscence of our legislature, is a curiosity wrapped in a cliche. It has a few one-liners mostly given to an emcee/comedian, Jim David, offering jokes (most average, some funny, one excellent) much on a level with nightly (and free) Jay Leno.
The show's most bizarre aspect is its frenetic anxiety to be all things to all audiences - corny for the out-of-towners, knowing, for the in-towners; cute, sophisticated and familiar, rightwing yet iconoclastic, dirty yet palatable. I think it's called schizophrenic.
The staging is over-Tommy-Tuned to a faretheewell, with a freewheeling ensemble celebrating phone-sex disgusting enough to give masturbation a bad name. Take care - it might send you blind.
The principal survivor of a good-natured cast is Dee Hoty, who plays a brothel keeper (call her madam) with a delightful mixture of sex, sass and class, and Scott Holmes, as her good ol' boy Texan friend, also has a lot of charm.
They both need everything they've got - including our sympathy - as does the entire company! Poor everybody.
Jogging and step aerobics notwithstanding, it is likely that there are still tired businessmen in the world. The question is, are they tired enough for "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public," a glitzy musical that tries very hard to live up to the lower standards of Las Vegas.
It's got the leggy showgirls, the glowing neon, the costumes cut up to here and down to there, the M.C. with the frilly tuxedo shirt, the clink-clink-clink of slot machines paying off, and Siegfried and Roy (portrayed by one actor, half of whom is made up as Siegfried, the other half as Roy).
What it ain't got is fun.
The musical opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, which they might consider renaming Alfred's Palace or Lynnie's Showboat Lounge and Casino. A master of Broadway razzle-dazzle, Tommy Tune has inexplicably lost his touch with this one. He is listed as co-director (with Peter Masterson) and co-choreographer (with Jeff Calhoun), but you can't even count on him for some flashy dances, his stock in trade.
In the big second-act production number, however, he and Mr. Calhoun do explore the fascinating phenomenon of phone sex. Encased in transparent plastic television sets are the scantily clad ladies who take the 900 calls. Perched on top of the sets, in bathrobes and red undershorts, are the slobs who make them. Difficult to say which gender is getting the worst of it here.
"The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" is billed as the sequel to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," the 1978 musical by Larry L. King, Mr. Masterson and Carol Hall, which told how right-wing religious zealots closed down a legendary Texas brothel known as the Chicken Ranch. The planets must have been in the right position; it chalked up more than 1,700 performances.
In "Whorehouse Goes Public," the same team attempts to duplicate the winning formula by having a zealous right-wing politician, Senator A. Harry Hardast (Ronn Carroll), mount a crusade against a Las Vegas brothel known as Stallion Fields.
The I.R.S., you see, has seized the bankrupt establishment and is running it with the hope of recovering $26 million in back taxes. Actually, Mona Stangley (Dee Hoty) is in charge of the operation. She presided over the Chicken Ranch, remember, and government officials, figuring her expertise might come in handy, have coaxed her out of retirement.
The Senator, irate, decides to conduct an on-the-spot investigation "nolo contendere." An aide asks him if he doesn't mean "incognito." "Same thing," he replies. "It's all Spanish." (And that's one of the snappier exchanges.)
The lanky Ms. Hoty looks swell in western togs. She can handle a country tune or a pop ballad with equal ease. Frankly, I'd watch her under just about any circumstances. At "Whorehouse Goes Public," I somehow felt I did. Scott Holmes is the love interest, an aw-shucks Texas billionaire named Sam, who arranges the sale of shares in Stallion Fields on the stock exchange. While the two performers can't bring the show up to their personable level, they are responsible for what class it has. Add a few spirited songs by Ms. Hall -- Mona's plucky "I'm Leavin' Texas"; her brassy duet with Sam, "It's Been a While"; Sam's twangy solo, "Change in Me" -- and you've pretty much covered the evening's strong points.
The jerry-built book by Mr. King and Mr. Masterson is just a series of stillborn sketches populated with grasping politicians, bumbling bureaucrats and good-hearted prostitutes who only want to do their job. Whenever the plot grinds to a halt, the stage is handed over to Jim David, a smirking stand-up comic who tells bad jokes eagerly and works the front rows of the audience. He is outfitted in a pale aqua tux. "I call this creation prom night in Paramus," he says, before disappearing into the wings with a leap, a pirouette and the unspoken but all-too-tangible promise that he'll be back soon.
After him, the second-busiest performer is the scenery by John Arnone. It's all over the place, winking and shimmering and showing off. Mr. Arnone and the lighting designers, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, are plainly out to capture the gaudy round-the-clock excitement of Vegas, but the overall effect is that of an international airport lounge on uppers.
Bob Mackie's costumes -- enough to fill a semi -- won't make you forget that he is the man who once put Cher into a beaded spider web for the Academy Awards. In fact, there's even a Cher impersonator on the premises. And Sonny, and Elvis, and Liberace in a white mink coat, too. "Let the Devil Take Us" they all sing in the opening number that rhymes "slot machines" with "hot machines" and "girly" with "twirly" (as in tassle).
The basic directorial tactic of Mr. Tune and Mr. Masterson is to bombard an audience -- an approach that would probably work better if they had material to bombard the audience with. But "Whorehouse Goes Public" is too dopey to be effective as political satire, too tame to qualify as raunch and not garish enough to claim its vulgarity as a real badge of honor.
You'd do better to cash in your frequent flier mileage and go see the real thing.
The last new show of the Broadway season is also the worst. In fact, it isn't stretching things to say that "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" is the crummiest junk to litter the district since "Ain't Broadway Grand" a couple of seasons back, and that is some competition.
As with the original "Whorehouse" 16 years ago, Universal has underwritten the project in exchange for the film rights. This timearound, the bill is about $ 8 million, and it will take more than Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds to make this turkey fly. Perhaps that explains the huge mock-up of the Universal logo onstage -- it may be the only publicity the studio gets from the show, for which fact U should be eternally grateful.
Also, as with the original, "Public" is the product mainly of Texans hellbent on showing New York a good ol' time. And if a beauteous bevy of cheerful, apple-cheeked B-girls, each one spangled and spread-eagled inside a mobile acrylic cube while praising the virtues of telephone sex sounds like your cup of tea, well, call for the honey.
One runs the risk, in expressing such strong sentiments about an entertainment like "Whorehouse," of sounding like a snobbish prude. But while we like trash as much as the next tired businessman -- honest! -- "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public" is trash of an altogether ranker sort.
"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" gave only mild offense, and Tommy Tune, making his Broadway debut, conjured up such ingenious, anti-Broadway images as a locker-room chorus line of football players and another of girls dancing with chorine cutouts.
But "Public" shows Tune ossified in the mediocrity he once so energetically spoofed. The show tells a story based, like the earlier one, on a true episode: When a Las Vegas brothel is taken over by the government in an attempt to collect back taxes, the feds bring in renowned former Chicken Ranch madam Miss Mona (Dee Hoty) to clean up the operation -- i.e., safe sex only -- and turn profits along with tricks. Texas, Vegas, girls and glitz. Don't forget the dopey comic and the Elvis impersonators!
This is Broadway hack work at the highest level, from Carol Hall's flat, imitative score to Larry L. King and Peter Masterson's brain-dead book. In the staging and choreography, by various combinations of Masterson, Tune and Jeff Calhoun, there's not a glimmer of wit or originality in evidence.
The physical production is assaultive from the first moment to the last, as the Lunt Fontanne (handsomely refurbished at long last) has been outfitted with speakers spitting out casino clatter (as well, one suspects, as sweetened applause).
Set designer John Arnone appears to have cornered the market on neon palm trees and sequential lights; it's amazing how much money can be spent in the service of the boring.
Speaking of boring, that is the best that can be said of Hoty, who somehow got star billing without ever having been one. Her name won't draw the luckless patrons to the Lunt. But Tommy Tune's probably will, and more's the pity.