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Lock Ann-Margret out of the "House'

In its day, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was hot stuff. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and all things Southern were of great national interest. A show about Texas' infamous Chicken Ranch, where it wasn't pullets that got plucked, had a long run on Broadway.

Now it's some 25 years later, and a revival of the musical inspired by a Larry L. King article in Playboy opened Tuesday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall. But instead of somebody who can sing playing the hooker with a heart of gold who runs the ranch, Miss Mona Stangley is being played by none other than Ann-Margret, making her theater debut.

It must have seemed like inspired casting, and it probably is from a box-office standpoint. After all, she's the perennial sex kitten for several generations of American men: the nubile teen dream of Bye Bye Birdie, a girlfriend of Elvis Presley and Jack Nicholson's fantasy mistress in Carnal Knowledge. At 60, she still looks fetching wrapped in a bedsheet on billboards for the show.

But the aura of an icon _ even one in a parade of glitzy Bob Mackie gowns and leisure suits _ goes only so far onstage. Ultimately, a performer needs to have the goods, and Ann-Margret is painfully out of her depth.

Miss Mona is not exactly a big sing, but the part does have a few vocal demands that are utterly beyond the star. She seems to be trying to channel Dolly Parton (Mona in the movie) by delivering her down-home homilies _ "We go in for mass volume and repeat bidness. Just like Coca-Cola" _ in an odd baby-doll twang. She mumbles through the torch songs Bus From Amarillo and A Friend to Me, which is too bad, because sung with panache, they would provide an emotional counterpoint to the leering raunchiness of the show.

Nor is she helped by the story about the pressure on Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Gary Sandy) to shut down the ranch. Carol Hall's score has its share of catchy tunes, but the book by King and Peter Masterson consists mostly of stale riffs on Bible Belt morality and corrupt politicians. Sandy's Southern-fried loudmouth quickly grows tiresome. Sometimes, the show even tries to get serious, and then it just dies.

Whorehouse is not without its moments. In The Aggie Song, choreographed by Tommy Tune, a chorus line of football players celebrates a trip to the Chicken Ranch with some of the strongest male dancing you'll see. Hard Candy Christmas, sung by Angel (Terri Dixon) and the rest of the working girls, is a beauty.

The supporting characters are well played, including Hal Davis' Edsel Mackey, a newspaper editor given to having a Lone Star beer for breakfast; Melvin P. Thorpe (Rob Donohoe), a televangelist with a gold belt buckle as big as a dinner platter; and Ed Dixon's Governor, who just can't keep from dancing the Texas sidestep.

This is a good-looking production, directed by Thommie Walsh, that has the ranchers romping on a brightly colored three-level set. The onstage cowboy band, conducted by Anne Shuttlesworth from the keyboard, is great fun.