Thirty years ago, it was the News Tribune’s own ad department that balked at the idea of printing the word “whorehouse.” Maybe you even did a double take just now.
But, as Rob Crouse chuckled and pointed out, there’s been “quite a change in our culture over the 30 years.” And when you think about it, “it’s pretty amazing.”
Under the direction of Crouse, Capital City Productions is opening its 30th season next week with a throwback to the group’s roots. CCP’s humble start as a dinner theater is widely known in the area now, but what some may not know is it started with a bit of cheeky controversy.
After convincing the owners of the Ramada Inn in Jefferson City to “take a chance on a local group of artists,” the production was born.
“We decided to do ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’ because at that time, that was very shocking, and it would get a lot of attention,” Crouse said. “In fact, (the News Tribune) didn’t want to put the word ‘whorehouse’ in the paper. When we bought ads, they wanted to put a blank in there.”
Crouse was right. The four performances were a hit, so much so that CCP — at the time the Capital City Players — kept adding new dates until they performed the show more than three times the amount they originally planned. (They’re sticking to four shows this time.)
The play follows the upturned lives of Miss Mona and her entertainment girls on the “chicken ranch” in the small Texas town of Gilbert. However, the pleasure place (read: bordello) isn’t a secret. The town knows, the sheriff knows, the governor knows. And the nearby college football teams certainly know, too.
As Crouse puts it, “This quiet little Texas town has gone on for decades with a whorehouse in town, minding their own business, doing their own thing.”
“And then the TV evangelist comes to town,” he said, “and all of a sudden, they are a national spectacle.”
While the play has a series of underlying messages — stories of a woman’s fight for survival, a critique of the “moral high horse” of televangelist Melvin P. Thorpe and the impact of media — it’s all packaged into a couple hours of musical and comedic relief.
“I’ve been talking very seriously,” Crouse laughed, “but this is a funny, funny show!”
The past four to five weeks of rehearsals have also brought back a flood of memories for Crouse, who directed the original debut and whose late wife, Christina, played Miss Mona. This is the first time Crouse is directing the show without her.
“I was a little bit hesitant at first, because I was so afraid that it might be painful … but it hasn’t been,” Crouse said. “I think of all the great memories of her doing that role, and it’s actually been nice memories rather than painful memories.”
She won’t be on the stage this time, but veteran actor Kitrina Tinnin, as Miss Mona, will be. Tinnin, Crouse said, brings a different presence to the stage.
“Kit’s portrayal is a lot sultrier and sexier than Chris’ Miss Mona,” he said.
Tinnin’s co-star, Tommy Baker, plays Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. The relationship between the two, Crouse said, is interesting, and it’s crucial to the story line. And to stay true to the show’s PG-13 rating, this time around — unlike the first time 30 years ago — the sheriff’s colorful language is untamed.
If there’s one problem the cast and crew have run into during their short rehearsal time, though, it’s on wardrobe.
“The biggest problem has been coming up with enough cowboy boots for everybody,” Crouse laughed.
The rest of the wardrobe, however, has already been brought to fruition. Thorpe, the televangelist, will be head to toe in red, white and blue. And the female ensembles, though they are part of a group, each have distinct personalities reflected in their costumes, Crouse said. The costumers have done a “fantastic job,” he said.
The years have also allowed CCP to present “Best Little Whorehouse” with new tech and more detailed sets. In 1991, for example, Crouse and his team barely managed to find someone to play the steel guitar in the live band for the show. Now, backing tracks do wonders. The production values have been greatly enhanced.
“I’m sitting there directing a scene, and these memories will flood back. … I’ll have a flashback of something that happened when we were doing it before or the way somebody delivered the line or a funny bit of business,” Crouse said. “That’s a very enriching experience.”
As director, he’s positive anyone who has seen the play before will get to take a walk down memory lane, too. For anyone who hasn’t, he guarantees “anybody that comes is going to have a good time.”
“As they say in the show, ‘Y’all come back now,’” Crouse said. “It’s been 30 years, but ‘y’all come back now!’”
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Musical!” runs Jan. 14-16 at CCP, 719 Wicker Lane, with performances set for 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14-16 and 1 p.m. Jan. 16. As part of the Spotz! on the Artist series, no dinner will be served. Patrons are expected to wear a mask and follow CCP guidelines for temperature checks and social distancing, Crouse said.
Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at ccpjc.org/best-little-whorehouse-in-texas, by calling 573-681-9612 or by emailing [email protected] The show is rated PG-13 for alcohol, gun shots, strong language, mild adult themes and nudity/partial nudity.