“Now my good friends, it behooves me to be solemn and declare,
I’m for goodness and for profit and for living clean and saying daily prayer”
I’m not the kind of gentleman who normally ends an evening with a lady in his lap but that was what (nearly) happened last night at the Union Theatre’s revival of US musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Inspired by a true story of a similarly-titled brothel , the Chicken Ranch is a well-established institution that has been passed down to Miss Mona from the original owner, who runs it with a veneer of classy respectability wherein she looks after her girls well and gets on with the local law enforcement to keep things running smoothly. But the decision of crusading news reporter Melvin P Thorpe to try and get the establishment closed down threatens everything.
Sarah Lark plays Miss Mona, the role made famous by Dolly Parton in the movie of the same name, all big brassy blonde hair piled up on her head and possessed of a wardrobe stuffed with fringes and sequins and quietly understated as a warmly maternal figure. Her singing voice is lovely though lacked a little volume in places and there was a little gravitas missing from her portrayal, though that could square with her being pushed into the position of Madam through unexpectedly inheriting the place. And around her are her scantily-dressed girls who service the townsmen’s needs – mainly portrayed here through shadow-play – and most of whom are running away from something, assumedly also using the somersaulting skills that got one lady closer to me than I was expecting! Together they make a strong group – the harmonies of ‘Girl You’re A Woman’ most lovely, the mix of personalities entertaining and as a starting point for a show, it feels like a fascinating premise.
It then feels a little perverse that the showstopper number is given to the boys in ‘The Aggie Song’ as a randy football team get ready to make their way down to the Ranch as a match-winning reward. There’s an element of redressing the balance here – they start off in boxers and only a few of them manage to button their checked shirts by the end of the song – and the overall effect of their barn-storming, line-dancing, top-tapping hoedown, choreographed by Richard Jones, is most impressive, making the most of the open stage in Kingsley Hall’s spare design.
But what is most odd about the show is the way in which most of the work of the first half in setting up the various plot strands and establishing distinct characters within the large ensemble is then abandoned in the second. Larry L King and Peter Masterton’s book shifts to a very downbeat tone which almost flies in the face of the fun that has preceded it: that which we had not been taking too seriously is suddenly thrown into stark relief and consequently the gaping holes in the plot are exposed. That the ending then comes rather abruptly further compounds a disappointing second act which doesn’t deliver on the promise of the first.
Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills, the 24 strong ensemble do work well though in this converted railway arch with strong character work: Leon Craig’s hi-falutin’, hallelujah-shrieking interfering reporter is huge amounts of fun, completely insane but still fun; James Parkes’ good-meaning Sherriff connected well with Lark’s Miss Mona and as the new arrivals to the Ranch, Franki Jenna’s confident Angel and Nancy Sullivan’s introverted Shy, both did well to inject more character into these girls than the writing allows. There are good vocals from Stephanie Tavernier and Lindsay Scigliano and my pick of the rest would be Jamie Papanicolaou for the boys and Jodie Lee Wilde for the girls, both being winkily suggestive at one point or another!
So something of a mixed bag: an excellent first half of silly fun, sharp dancing and acres of bare flesh which then tails off into something altogether too sombre, reaching for a pathos that it simply hasn’t earned.