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Hit musical brings the Chicken Ranch to Bury Theatre Royal

PUBLISHED: 18:27 01 May 2018 | UPDATED: 18:27 01 May 2018

The Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
PICTURE: Andy Abbott

The Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. PICTURE: Andy Abbott

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The title may sound a bit dubious but as all musical theatre fans know The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is all good clean fun, well almost. David Henshall takes a look at the award-winning show and its roots in real-life

The Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
PICTURE: Andy AbbottThe Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. PICTURE: Andy Abbott

A bordello is an unlikely subject for a musical but this particular establishment is part of history, a story that takes a very tuneful tongue-in-cheek look at the downfall of a place of pleasure known as the Chicken Ranch.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas won two Tonys and four Drama Desk awards when it opened in 1978 on Broadway where it stayed for more than three years before touring America with notable success. When it was made into a movie, Dolly Parton played Mona, the madam running the business.

Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society has chosen the show for their spring production, opening at the Theatre Royal on the first of next month, and the group’s Melvyn Barnes describes it as “a foot-stamping, toe-tapping feast for the eyes that isn’t as simple as it seems.”

It is set in the late 1970s by which time the bordello had been operating on the outskirts of La Grange, Texas, for more than 50 years, existing in harmony with the law and the local citizens. It got its nickname, The Chicken Ranch in the 1930s Depression when the girls traded services for farm goods and livestock. So many chickens were received that hen houses were set up for poultry and egg production.

The Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
PICTURE: Andy AbbottThe Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. PICTURE: Andy Abbott

It bears comparison, for those with a long memory, to the saga of the late Cynthia Payne who set up a similar sort of establishment in the London suburb of Streatham where, in an endlessly party-giving atmosphere, her girls accepted luncheon vouchers in payment from the mostly elderly gentleman clients. In the 1980s she was acquitted of running a brothel.

The plot of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas follows the true story of the Chicken Ranch pretty closely though the names have been changed. La Grange becomes Gilbert and Marvin Zindler, the evangelist TV reporter who brings about the demise of the bordello, is called Melvin P Thorpe. Edna Milton, the madam under whose benign authority the place became famous or infamous, according to your point of view, is Mona Stangley.

“Miss Mona is a mother hen who takes care of her girls and is also on good terms with the local sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd”, says Melvyn Barnes, “but it’s not just a delightful mix of comedy, great music and rather provocative ladies. There is also food for thought. When the crusading Melvin P Thorpe launches his expose, the political ramifications and mob rule look likely to close the place down. So, what will happen to Miss Mona’s girls?

Among them are newcomers to the business who have been used, had hard luck and arrived at the Chicken Farm in the hopes of earning the money that will give them a fresh start. Mona takes them on because the winners of the big local football game, who are always treated to a night of frolicking at the farm, are due shortly and she might need more help.

The Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
PICTURE: Andy AbbottThe Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. PICTURE: Andy Abbott

Over the years in real life, governors, senators, mayors and cops have visited the cosy, homelike farm and the local community has tolerated, secretly relished and certainly patronised the place. Director Chris Strahm says “the show raises many issues surrounding loss of innocence, freedom, regrets and desires. It explores the thin veil between truths and falsehoods.”

The story also points up some pretty sharp political chicanery in the song The Side-Step, looking at the hypocrisy of the Governor of Texas. Musical director Simon Pearce, says, “I just love the music.” There are classic country style numbers such as Good Old Girl, revealing the characters’ backgrounds and some great foot-stomping in The Aggie Song, celebrating the footballers’ victory. Among the wide-ranging songs is the show-stopping gospel-based 24 Hours of Loving.

Carol Hall wrote both music and lyrics and the book is by Larry L King and Peter Masterson. Fiona Barker plays Mona with Barry Barker as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd – husband and wife and long-time Bury Operatic players. Ben Hill is Melvin P Thorpe with Beth Jennings as the dreamy waitress Doatsey Mae. Kate Steggle and Freya Matthams are alternating the very jazzy role of the maid Jewel and Colin Musgrove is hypocritical side-stepping Governor of Texas.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, until May 5 (7.30 with a 2.30 Sat mat). Tickets: 01284 769505 or www.theatreroyal.org

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