BWW Reviews: THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, Union Theatre, October 20 2011
With more push-up bras than Victoria Beckham's bedroom and more lingerie than Victoria's Secrets stockroom - though, in the interests of balance, it's incumbent on me to point out that it's only the football jocks who go topless - The Chicken Ranch (aka The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) is doing a roaring trade in Hicksville USA.
Tart-with-a-heart madam Miss Mona mollycoddles the misfits and miscreants that turn up on her doorstep on the run from debt, abusive husbands, and worse, offering them a start in the oldest profession and, more importantly, a sense of belonging and, yes, pride. Protected by its status as a small town institution frequented by locals, yokels and politicos, all is well in the house whose curtains are always drawn. Enter Melvin P Thorpe, a sensationalist television reporter riding a wave of moral indignation, and soon The Chicken Ranch has a fox in the coop.
Originally produced in 1978 and sanitised somewhat for the Dolly Parton/Burt Reynolds Hollywood version, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas continues the Union Theatre's run of crowd-pleasing revivals of big musicals staged in an intimate environment. If - and it's a big if with this show - one can leave behind 33 years of knowledge about HIV, exploitation of vulnerable women fallen prey to domestic violence and reality TV shows set in Nevada's legal brothels, one can enjoy the underlying story of women building a safe home for themselves, looking after their material and psychological needs in an unsympathetic world and finding hope and a future where once there was none.
There's also a strong message about consent trumping morality in sexual behaviour, but little exploration of the power relations between the seller and the buyer in the cheques for sex business.
Though that's rather a po-faced summary for a feelgood musical, there is much to feel good about, as the goodtime girls sing and dance well, with the soulful lament "Hard Candy Christmas" delivered beautifully. The boys' boisterous confidence is evident with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers style checked shirt and cowboy boots dance routines, but it fades a little at the bedroom door.
Sarah Lark, in a Dolly Parton wig and a succession of Partonesque outfits, brings warmhearted authority to Miss Mona, but James Parkes is the standout as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, backed into a corner by the voyeuristic hypocrisy of television news values and unable to connect with Mona's memories of their long ago love affair, but singing his appreciation of her ("Good Ole Girl") with real feeling.
So there it is - a show in which the human spirit's irresistible force is celebrated, but through which runs a strand of melancholy for a world whose imperfections are never far off stage.
The Best Little Whorehose in Texas is at the Union Theatre until 12 November.