Especially in its Rogers Park days, Theo Ubique Theatre set a high bar for itself when it came to musical excellence. Artistic director Fred Anzevino found the best young singers in town and the longtime musical director Jeremy Ramey ensured that the band was as stellar as the vocals.
Of late, that has slipped.
A case in point is Theo’s new production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a dated but justly loved country-flavored musical penned by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson with music and lyrics by Carol Hall. “Whorehouse,” as the show is affectionately known, is based on the real-life Texan brothel known as The Chicken Ranch and it happens to have one of the more unusual, and most tuneful, scores ever penned for Broadway. You get the seasonal treat “Hard Candy Christmas” (one of the best lyrical metaphors of all time), “The Bus from Amarillo” (a song with which many theater people identify), “Twenty Four Hours of Lovin’” (which gets to the point) and the lovely ballad of regret “Doatsy Mae,” replete with the sweetly sad lyric, “I wanted to. I wanted to. But I never could.”
“Whorehouse” is a tad raunchy, for sure, but in a gentle, genial, PG-13 kind of way, poking fun at religious censoriousness and (progressively for its era), pitching sex work as a way out of financial distress. Albeit with a price to be paid.
So what kind of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” do you get at Theo Ubique? A serviceable one. The director, Landree Fleming, has some fresh ideas, making the Aggies and Miss Mona’s ladies largely interchangeable, with some of the same actors playing both ensemble categories, without regard for traditional gender. That’s cool, and there is also an exuberant comic turn to enjoy from David Blakeman, playing the chief antagonist to the goings-on at the ranch and a poignant performance from Michaela Shapiro, in the role of Shy. There are several other solid performances in a cast that stars Anne Sheridan Smith as Miss Mona.
But I missed the great wall of harmonic sound that should accompany “Hard Candy Christmas” and, overall, I thought the tempos were too slow and the band, well, lacking enough verve and zest for this particular piece of material. In other places, the show is far too busy when it should be letting the material do the work; this is especially true in the famous ballads, which just need to be sung simply with skill and heart. It’s a tricky, deceptively fragile show: it’s easy to overplay and end up as unintentionally condescending to the working-class characters.
“Whorehouse” fans still will have fun and the atmosphere on Howard Street is certainly warm and welcoming enough to melt a wind-chilled audience.
But in the end, this is a show about songs. And I’ve seen Theo Ubique do far better.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (2.5 stars)
When: Through Jan. 29
Where: Theo Ubique Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $40-$50 at 773-939-4101 and theo-u.org