The last time I went to the Southampton Cultural Center to review a play, it was for a revival of “Motherhood Out Loud” earlier this year, and I was pleasantly surprised by the high level of the production from the mostly amateur company, Center Stage. A return on Saturday night for a Center Stage production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” was a disappointment.
This is an ill-conceived rendition of the 1978 hit that ran on Broadway for over 1,500 performances.
Based on a story by Larry L. King, with a salty book by Mr. King and Peter Masterson and lyrics and score by Carol Hall, the original production was directed by Mr. Masterson and Tommy Tune, and choreographed by Mr. Tune and Thomas Walsh. The creative team was Texas through and through, with all but Mr. Walsh being born in the Lone Star State.
It began as an article Mr. King wrote in 1974 for Playboy on the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, Tex., so called because during the Depression, with money scarce, the women would accept poultry in return for their services.
According to the Handbook of Texas Music, edited by Laurie Jasinski, the idea of turning the article into a fictionalized musical came about when Mr. King met the brilliant Carol Hall in Washington, D.C. Mr. Masterson next joined the team, followed by Mr. Tune, slowly shaping it into what it is today.
It began its stage life at the Actor’s Studio in New York, where it was done as a workshop in 1977. It then was produced Off Broadway the following year at the Entermedia Theater, before moving to the Great White Way, on the stage of the 46th Street Theater for its long run.
The show brought a gritty Texas authenticity and country music to the American musical theater form. It also was a launching point for the choreographic and directing career of the brilliant, playful, and inventive Mr. Tune, then 39.
One of the highlights of the original production was the kickass country-and-western band that sat on the stage with the performers. Mr. Tune insisted on authentic country musicians, leading to a confrontation with the Broadway musicians union, which was eventually worked out by paying both bands for each performance.
It was a mind-blowing show for the oh-so-sophisticated New York audience.
The production in Southampton lacks almost all of the above.
That said, there are a couple of things to like: The very talented Valerie diLorenzo plays the part of Miss Mona Stangley, which garnered a Tony Award for the creator of the role on Broadway, Carlin Glynn. In a good production it can be a tour de force part for an actor of Ms. diLorenzo’s caliber.
Also to like is Emily Selyukova, a newcomer. She is a joy to watch onstage, with an intuitive understanding of comedy. The scene between the two women early in the show is lovely.
Adam Fronc is another actor who shows great promise.
Over all, the cast is enthusiastic, and you want them to continue in theater. But this?
I won’t go any further than the first number. The musical pacing was slow. The violin seemed out of tune and out of touch with the piano. The dancers filled the stage like it was a subway car during rush hour. Choreography? Where?
The set has a raised platform, which the actors frequent. Inches above their heads when they are on the platform is what appeared to be an acoustical wooden board. Yikes!
The production was rudderless. With enthusiastic but inexperienced performers, a director needs to work overtime to get the pieces of a complex show like this in sync.
Michael Disher, whose work seemed so good earlier this year, is wearing at least one too many hats here. He is credited in the program as producer, director, choreographer, and costume designer, and unfortunately, in none of those areas does this production succeed.
A page of “director’s notes” was inserted in the program. They begin and finish with Mr. Disher talking about Bob Fosse. Huh? In the interim, he works out his qualms about a show about prostitution. Perhaps this is a clue as to what went wrong here.
But the worst, unfortunately, is saved for last.
Ms. diLorenzo finishes the show with a nicely sung version of Dolly Parton’s “I’ll Always Love You.” Unfortunately, that song is not in the stage version of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” It was included in the film version of the play, released in 1982, starring Dolly Parton.
The song itself is contrary to the point the book authors, as well as the composer and lyricist, were making.
Miss Mona’s theme song in the play is “The Bus From Amarillo,” which comes at the end of the first act.
“Guess life’s a one-way ticket to nowhere,
Wish I was traveling free.
I had a one-way ticket to go where
Anything was possible for me, anything was possible for me.”
It is a sad, haunting song. Miss Mona loves the sheriff, but she is not in love with the sheriff. In the end, she is left onstage, alone.
Writers and composers in theater know that in return for the big satchel of money you get from Hollywood for a play or musical, you cede all rights to the piece. Such is not the case in live theater, when a play or musical is licensed out.
From conception to fruition, the stage show was years in development. Many people bled for it, and now we stick in a song from the film version, which seems to be contrary to the intent of the stage authors?
“I’ll Always Love You” is not listed in the program, which is odd, to say the least.
Perhaps the composer and lyricist gave her permission for the number to be included, or maybe the licensing agent, Samuel French, signed off on the additional song. But if Samuel French or the composer did not license that change, the song should be pulled immediately. Altering a licensed show is the sort of thing that gives amateur theater a bad name.