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Ann-Margret, the 1960s sex kitten who skyrocketed to fame in such films as Viva Las Vegas and Kitten With a Whip, long ago advanced to the status of renowned actor, beginning with her Oscar nominations for Carnal Knowledge and Tommy. She's been a perennial Vegas headliner but otherwise had no experience in live theatre. We've often heard hints of her possible musical-comedy debut, in such vehicles as Sunset Boulevard, which never came to fruition. Divine intervention has at last occurred, and the dazzling Miss A-M has landed in a role that fits her as snugly as her resplendent, heavily sequined Bob Mackie costumes. Fate has also been kind in gracing her debut with an uncommonly solid bus-and-truck production.

This mildly raunchy 1978 musical, with book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, loosely bases its story on the real Chicken Ranch bordello in the heart of Texas, which was closed down after a public outcry. The funny and intermittently touching vehicle holds up remarkably well. The underrated country-flavored score by Carol Hall sounds fresh and vibrant under the supervision of Keith Levenson, working with Jeffrey Klitz and William Meade, and performed by a zesty onstage band. From bouncy production numbers such as "A Li'l Bitty Pissant Country Place" to heartrending ballads such as "Hard Candy Christmas," this immensely listenable score is well served by a skillful ensemble of triple-threat performers.

The enchanting Ann-Margret, at age 60, offers a more sophisticated Miss Mona than such predecessors as Dolly Parton and Dee Hoty, but she has the requisite moxie to convey this gutsy, take-charge character. She looks sensational and moves with grace and vigor. Her singing voice is less forceful than we remember but has a husky, sultry quality, bringing out all the humor, irony, and poignancy in Hall's superb lyrics. She has a most capable costar in TV veteran Gary Sandy, whose crusty interpretation of Mona's longtime beau is on the mark; he also handles his big number, "Good Old Girl," with finesse. Supporting work is rock solid, especially the uproariously funny Ed Dixon as the slippery, self-serving Governor and Rob Donohoe's loony take on the ridiculous TV evangelist/consumer advocate Melvin P. Thorpe. Avery Sommers provides showstopping vocals as Mona's spirited right-hand woman Jewel.

Director/choreographer Thommie Walsh keeps the joint jumping with his crisply paced scenes and exuberant production numbers, highlighted by the "Aggie Song" performed by the romping and stomping team of horny football players. (Walsh was associate choreographer for the Broadway production and originally co-staged this number with director Tommy Tune.) Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's sprawling unit set is serviceable, and the attractive costumes by Dona Granata and Jason Kantrowitz (designing for everyone except the star) add visual appeal. Ken Billington's lighting enhances the production's classy look. Whorehouses might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is undoubtedly the best little star vehicle to grace the string of West Coast cities that were smart enough to book this delightful tour.

"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," presented by Manny Kladitis, Mitch Leigh, Magic Arts & Entertainment, and Clear Channel Entertainment, in association with Jon B. Platt, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Closed. Also at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tues. 8 p.m., Wed. 2 & 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 12-Mar. 10. $31-77. (415) 512-7770. And at Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay, Portland, Ore. Tues.-Fri. 7:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. Mar. 13-17. $22-60. (503) 790-ARTS.

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