The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas
Like XXL. But a bit more gay.
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The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is billed as a ‘time-to-begin-let’s-count-it-in’ foot stomping barn dance of a show. Brimming with fast talking hookers, a chorus of American footballers in their pants and many a rhinestone cowboy, what more could you want? Well, a decent plot for a start ...
Perhaps better known as a film starring Dolly Parton (who?) and Burt Reynolds, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas started life as this rather cloying and confused musical. A confusical, if you will – but I digress. Set in late 70s Texas (duh), times is good at the Chicken Ranch ‘boarding house’, where Miss Mona (Sarah Lark) watches over her girls with a firm but loving eye. Seemingly living in harmony with the local community and frequently fraternised by senators, footballers and the local farmers (hot), all is well until local newshound Melvin P Thorpe (Leon Craig) gets his glittery knickers in a twist – singing, as he does – that ‘Texas has a whorehouse in it’. Local Sheriff Ed Earl Dodds (James Parkes), still sweet on Mona, wades in and the future looks shaky for the girls at the Ranch ...
Director Paul Taylor-Mills clearly has affection for the musical’s vivacity but somehow he can’t see the disco woods for the glittery trees. There are a number of misfires here, both in the direction and the staging, which detract from the play’s real heart, but it doesn’t help that the musical is inherently flawed, never fully developing its characters or plot. The show kicks off well with two new girls, Angel (excellent Franki Jenna) and Shy (heartbreaking Nancy Sullivan), arriving at the Ranch in search of a new life with Mona but, aside from a tender moment with Angel and her son, we don’t hear from them again until the final moments of the show. Similarly, the diner owner and ersatz narrator Doatsy-Mae (Lindsay Scigliano in fine voice) is relegated to lower than sub-plot, forced to wander around with a cafetiere (surely 70s diners didn’t use cafetieres). The staging and design are uninspired too, with too much facing front and straight lines, neglecting the audiences banished to the sides of the venue.
The biggest misfire though is the decision to turn Melvin P. Thorpe from crusading moralist to Liberace on acid. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense, and undermines the corruption found elsewhere in the story. The volume needs to be turned down on Thorpe (and on the band – at times the singers were just plain drowned out). However, the show is rescued, and thank the Lord for her, by Sarah Lark’s Miss Mona. Pint-sized even in a piled up wig and heels, she has a baby face and the maturity of a performer twice her age. It’s a brave move in casting her, but it pays off – she has graduated from TV Nancy-wannabe to fully fledged leading lady and gives a performance of real heart, class and integrity.
As for the footballers – well, there’s more testosterone on Gardener’s Question Time, but they look pretty enough (even if there’s more checked shirts on show than a night at XXL) and the first half ends with some explosive choreography which they thrillingly execute. However, this feels like too many different productions jostling for attention in the one musical, and sadly, none of them can rescue this misplaced misfire of a show which, much like Miss Mona’s business, needs a cleanup.
Words: Dan Usztan
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is at the Union Theatre, London until 12th November