The movie version of this show starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds was a big box office success of the 1980s, while the original Broadway production in 1978 ran for over 1500 performances, winning two Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards.
It therefore has ‘hit’ written all over it. But that was then. Now, it seems more of a musical curiosity. In this production at the ever-adventurous Union Theatre, the show seems sentimental and overblown. That is not the fault of the young and very energetic performers – all 24 of them, plus a three-piece band – but of the book by Larry L King and Peter Masterson.
The plot, such as it is, is based on the story of a real Texas brothel and is fairly standard fare. Do-gooders want to close the place down, there is some token resistance, but in the end the two-faced politicians sell out and the good ole Sheriff (James Parkes), who once had a fling with the brothel-owner (Sarah Lark), has to do what the Governor says.
There are a few belated attempts to add cue-points for sympathy, with bits of backstory being tacked on late in the day, but we haven’t got to know enough about the characters to engage with them fully, and the key plot point of the two new girls being taken on - which starts the story off - is hardly mentioned again. Instead we get some tender moments about thwarted dreams which haven’t, in dramatic terms, been ‘earned’.
The show steers an uneven course between cartoonish hokum (with many a ‘yee-ha!’) and a more sincere examination of the whorehouse girls’ plight. The TV newsman who runs a hate campaign against the whorehouse is portrayed as a flouncing queen in an outrageous wig. In itself it’s a glorious performance (Leon Craig), but it both cheapens and softens the dramatic effect.
That said, there is some terrific choreography (Richard Jones), some gutsy songs (music and lyrics by Carol Hall), some very eye-catching performers and a pervasive buzz of good feeling that wins through despite the weaknesses in the material. How this theatre manages to mount so many relatively large-cast musicals with such high production standards is a marvel of the London fringe.