Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas


Aida on Ice is finally ready for dress rehearsal. The costumes have been completed. The orchestra has been hired and schooled in both Verdi and Elton John. The chorines have been taught to skate a spectacular fan kick line. The animals for the triumphal procession have been fitted with 'Doggy Depends', courtesy of my dear friend June Allyson, so as not to foul the ice. The Zamboni has been freshly painted a pleasing combination of lavender and aqua. Tomorrow, we do a full run-through for invited guests, predominantly the Guatemalan community of the greater Los Angeles area - all of whom seem to be related to the proprietors of Rosita's Ice-A-Rama - the rink where we're staging the world premiere of the show.

I'm a tad concerned as Andrea Boccelli, my Rhadames, and I, still have not had time to practice my trapeze entrance into the final tomb scene. My splits position is impeccable and I've had no trouble completing the trick with our circus professionals, but Rhadames must catch Aida as she flies through the air, in order to have the correct dramatic impact. I have been assured, however, that Andrea is ready for the moment and will have no trouble with the trick. The Project GreenLester crew is putting up three cameras to get multiple angles of the shot so as to make maximum use of it in the 'Making of' documentary series that they're doing. I've been told that we're just days away from inking a deal with Ovation.

As I spent a good part of the day working in the flowing black lace peignoir with the peacock feather trim, when I got home, I decided to explore a film with a lingerie fashion sense similar to mine and got out the 1982 film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. The film is based on a late 70s Broadway success that owed most of its breezy good nature to Tommy Tune's inventive staging. It was certainly never a model of a well constructed musical; characters would appear from nowhere, sing ballads, and then vanish for the rest of the show and there was essentially no second act. When it came time for the piece to go to Hollywood, Tommy Tune was, of course, out, and it landed in the lap of Colin Higgins, who had had his biggest successes in the 70s with such films as Harold and MaudeFoul Play and Nine to Five.

Higgins, who died a few years later of HIV complications, was never the most subtle of writers or directors, and tended to revel in the smutty double entendre and raucous farce aspects of his pieces. He teamed up with his Nine to Five star, Dolly Parton, to tailor the piece to her particular talents. This meant jettisoning half the score, adding some new songs for Parton (which she penned, rather than Carol Hall, who had written the show for Broadway), and hiring Burt Reynolds, still riding high on his good old boy image from the 70s, to play opposite her. All of the changes destroyed the somewhat innocent fun of the original and makes the film top heavy, and from more than just Miss Parton's underwired breasts.

The film opens promisingly enough. The first ten or fifteen minutes, lays the groundwork for all that will follow, using two songs from the original score (Twenty Fans, Little Old Bitty Pissant Country Place) and is a high energy montage of sights and sounds that introduces us to Dolly's Miss Mona, madam of the famed bordello, the Chicken Ranch; we also meet her boyfriend, sheriff Ed Earl (Burt Reynolds), the girls (a lot of out of work Victoria's Secret models), and the deputy (Jim Nabors doing Gomer Pyle yet again). We learn how the Chicken Ranch has been an institution for nearly a century, is a good member of every civic organization except the Rotary, and Dolly tries on a large number of outfits left over from Mae West's last night club act. Unfortunately, the film then begins to fall apart.

As Burt and Dolly are the nominal stars, we get a whole lot of time of them playing cute in various ridiculous pieces of underwear, showing all the chemistry of Rosanne Barr and Peter Lorre. Then Dom DeLuise shows up as a self-appointed guardian of moral order, insisting on closing the Chicken Ranch down. This leads to many unfunny pratfalls and sight gags. DeLuise is an old fashioned vaudeville clown, but he seems to have been directed in such a way that all of the farcical elements of his scenes have been drowned in plodding pacing and over busy staging. Miss Mona promises to suspend operations at the Chicken Ranch, but only after the traditional party for the graduating Texas A & M Aggie football team seniors. This leads to a huge production number (The Aggie Song) in which a lot of fey chorus boys tap dance in boots and jock straps and try to convince us they're horny football players. They don't succeed. I decided they were excited at the prospect of doing the girls' hair as none of those boys would ever get into bed with a woman. Of course, our villain shows up at the party, all hell breaks loose and eventually, sheriff Ed Earl has to close things down. By this time, the audience has fallen asleep - only a late appearance by Charles Durning as the governor of Texas, singing and dancing The Sidestep, keeps us from drooling onto our shoes.

Dolly gives it the old college try, although she's obviously a bit uncomfortable at some of the sexual innuendo she's given. She's a natural performer and makes the most of her scenes. She's never anything but Dolly Parton but there's nothing wrong with that. One of her new songs for the film, I Will Always Love You, became a monster hit when Whitney Houston redid it a decade later for The Bodyguard. Burt, on the other hand, telephoned in his performance from home. He relies on his usual aw-shucks charm but has no gusto to go along with it. The less said about Dom DeLuise, the better.

The material might have worked better in the hands of a writer/director who understood the needs of musical comedy and the pacing that allows a good musical to survive. Time and again, the film comes to a dead halt for useless exposition, or gets bogged down in smarmy, smirking sex jokes. It may be a piece about sex, but the adolescent male attitudes taken, destroy bit after bit until you feel the need for a shower afterwards. I can't recommend the film, but it's a must for those who want to see men dancing in their underwear or a musical number staged inside the Texas Capitol Dome.

Courthouse pond pratfall. Pants stuffing. Gratuitous topless prostitutes. Staircase kick line. TV studio audience. Capitol soft shoe. Tear away evening gowns. Gratuitous Japanese sling shot. Gratuitous Howard K. Smith. 

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