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A Second Act for ‘Whorehouse’

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Local hero: Houston actor Michael Tapley plays Melvin P. Thorpe in Theatre Under the Stars’s production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Whorehouse, as it is affectionately abbreviated, brought Broadway infamy to Marvin Zindler, the late local investigative reporter who discovered the “dirty goings-on” on which the musical is based. Photo by Caitlin Cannon.

Michael Tapley returns to Miss Mona’s, 22 years later, in a new role
by Donalevan Maines

“Senery will be chewed,” says Michael Tapley. But how else would ya play Melvin P. Thorpe, the character in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas who’s based on Channel 13’s “Marrrvin Zindler, Eyeeeewitness News!”  

“It’s going to be a blast,” says Tapley. Rehearsals began in May for the Theatre Under the Stars production of BLWT, which Tapley hasn’t performed since 1990.

Tapley as Melvin P. Thorpe, the Marvin Zindler character. Photo by Claire McAdams.

“That was 12 years ago,” he says.

No, Michael, that was 22 years ago.

“Oh my God!” he cringes.

Tapley remembers when Zindler’s exposé of the Chicken Ranch brothel near LaGrange forced Gov. Dolph Briscoe to shut down the illegal operation in 1973. “I remember the original footage when he came back with a black eye and showed it to everybody on TV,” says Tapley, who was about 10 when the Fayette County sheriff also yanked off the flamboyant reporter’s toupee and fractured two of his ribs for nosing around.

Tommy Tune co-directed the 1979 Broadway musical based on Larry L. King’s account in Playboy magazine. Tune also choreographed instantly classic numbers such as “The Aggie Song” that heralded the arrival of horny, shirtless Texas A&M football players at Miss Mona’s bawdy house.

In the 1990 TUTS production at the old Music Hall, Tapley says, “I was one of the Aggies. It was an intricate, difficult tap-slash-clogging kind of thing we performed in cowboy boots.”

Tapley’s training for the show began when he was about 10, studying at TUTS’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre when classes met in studios above Birraporetti’s on West Gray. “It was a rundown property then,” he recalls. “Now it’s nothing but high-priced boutiques and restaurants.”

It beat “singing and dancing in my garage,” says Tapley, whose first show, Kismet, starred Howard Keel, reprising his role as The Poet in the 1955 movie musical. “I was a supernumerary in the kids’ chorus, but there were opera singers and flamboyant costumes and a full orchestra screaming.” What’s not to love!

“I did The King and I, Carousel, Oliver!—over 80 shows with TUTS,” he says.

As soon as Tapley graduated from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose in 1982, he got his Actors Equity card playing Tommy Djilas in The Music Man at Earl Holliman’s Fiesta Dinner Playhouse near San Antonio.

“I played the bad kid on the block. I was typecast,” he cracks. Other representative roles from the early part of his career were Tulsa, who elopes with June in Gypsy; Mike, who performs “I Can Do That” in A Chorus Line; and Riff, the hotheaded leader of the Jets in West Side Story.

”You were either what we used to call ‘nellie’ or you were butch,” he says. “I wasn’t your girlie queen.”

Nor was Tapley sexually attracted to effeminate men, but he was a big fan of the female impersonator shows at the Old Plantation and the Copa. “I was always fascinated with the art form. You can take it to such an extreme. There are no limits to what you can do,” he says. “Back in the day, we stopped dancing and partying and sat down and watched the show. Newman [Braud] was definitely my favorite,” referring to the legendary Naomi Sims. “He was just so spot-on with his energy. He was a good actor.

“I never wanted to do [drag],” he adds. “People never thought of me that way.”

Tapley also performed in five national tours, including The Who’s Tommy, which led to him understudying the lead on Broadway. On multiple occasions, he got to go on at the St. James Theatre.

“I would love to go back and visit,
but New York City and I didn’t get along,” he says. “I wanted my car. I wanted to drive up to an establishment and park right there. I wanted a house with a yard and a dog.”

Back home for the past 12 years, currently living in the Heights off Memorial Drive, Tapley has done a lot of directing and choreographing, so the role of Melvin B. Thorpe is a return to performing for the song-and-dance man.

“We did a photo shoot and I morphed into the character. It feels like it fits,”
he says.

The June 5–17 performances of BLWT reunite Tapley with Michelle Dejean, another HSPVA graduate who played Liesl opposite him as Rolf in a TUTS production of The Sound of Music. Like their duet, Dejean was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” She’s since starred on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago.

Directing BLWT is Roger Allan Raby, the TUTS production stage manager who performed in the original Broadway productions of Sherry! and Mame.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas will be performed June 5–17 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Visit tuts.com for tickets and further details.

Donalevan Maines also writes about the Tony Awards in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

 

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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