It’s extraordinary that it took two people (Larry L. King and Peter Masterson) to write the book for Carol Hall’s true-events-based 1978 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas as it’s as much of a dramaturgical disaster as the Union’s recent offering The Baker’s Wife. These two flawed 1970s musicals have very different performance histories: The Baker’s Wife understandably flopped, yet The Best Little Whorehouse ran for 1,584 performances on Broadway, where it returned after a national tour with the original leads and was later filmed starring Dolly Parton. It might be a show that doesn’t try to be anything other than light entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that the queasy sexual politics should be accepted with an indulgent shrug as a harmless ‘bit of fun.’
An inaudible introduction charting the history of The Chicken Ranch and how it passed into the hands of Miss Mona narrated by Doatsey-Mae (Lindsay Scigliano), a waitress in the greasy spoon next door and a failed prostitute, is an unpromising start from which Paul Taylor-Mills’s production never really recovers. Miss Mona runs what she believes to be a respectable sort of house where “a certain kind of French” is spoken (‘guests’ rather than ‘customers’ and ‘sample salesmen’, not ‘pimps’), a high level of pastoral care is provided and the local Sheriff (an uncomfortable James Parkes) is an old friend. She and her girls live together like one big happy family; the conflict comes in the form of a campaign led by squealing television anchor and evangelist Melvin P. Thorpe (an immensely grating turn by Leon Craig in a Boris Johnson-style wig) to get the establishment closed down. The second act merely ties up a few loose ends.
There are no romances between whores and clients (it’s unusual to find a musical without a love story), none of the girls try to rebel and the old spark between Miss Mona and the Sheriff isn’t re-lit. A football team promised a field trip to the whorehouse as a special treat get the most memorable choreography with an interesting display of male bonding featuring some athletic dancing with towels. Designer Kingsley Hall exploits the versatility of old fold-up beds, which act as shower cubicles and screens behind which the girls provide their services.
As Miss Mona, Sarah Lark is a fine singer and has a nicely approachable manner, but is decades too young and lacks blowsy authority. The youthfulness of the whole cast is something of a problem, particularly the whores who are far too fresh-faced to be convincingly world-weary, though Stephanie Tavernier offers powerful vocals and substantial presence as brothel housekeeper Jewel and it would make more sense if she had the narrator role.
The prostitute has a rich history in musical theatre, often idealised, but rarely sentimentalised in such a sickly manner (though it is the only musical I’ve ever seen that alludes to menstruation). When the gauche new girl Shy (Nancy Sullivan) takes to her new profession like a duck to water, the others congratulate her ‘Girl, You’re a Woman’ without irony as if it’s a wonderful act of empowerment. Along with an abrupt ending in which the leading lady accepts defeat (a strange way to end a romp), all of this is as hard to swallow as a Hard Candy Christmas.