Thursday, September 13, 2007

Review of "Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Poor Debbie Benton. She’s got a great life as captain of the cheerleading squad, and a chance to make the Dallas Cowgirls when she graduates. However, her parents consider cheering a form of “outdoor burlesque,” and won’t help provide the money she so desperately needs to relocate to Texas. What’s a girl to do but form her own company (aptly named “Teen Services”), and bleed the pockets of all the sexually frustrated and lonely men in town?

When I was in high school, all the cheerleaders worked as cashiers or waitresses. Then again, my life (regrettably) didn’t follow the plotlines of a 70’s porn classic.

Such though, is the story of Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, the hit off-Broadway show written by Erica Schmidt and Susan Schwartz to Andrew Sherman’s music, now performed by To The Wall Productions as part of the 2007 Philadelphia Fringe.

However, the only overlap lies in the plot (there’s no nudity), and only the goofiness of the piece matches the style of a 70’s porno, except with much better music. Schwartz and Schmidt wrote this as a send up, and director Dawn K Cowle treats it as nothing less. After her first encounter (“Ten Dollars Closer to My Dream”) with frustrated adults willing to pay far more than minimum wage for what girls now give away for free on spring break videos, Debbie (Kara Senich) pauses philosophically to remark, “I suddenly feel as if everything is clear to me and I know how I must live.” The ridiculousness builds by degrees from here, as the girls slowly take offers for teen services from all of their various bosses, and song and dance numbers become just so much hysterically simulated sex on stage. Even the sensuality is contrived, as the leering of the adults more resembles Mr. Furley than Jack Tripper. (Sorry, can’t help with the 70’s references here.)

And while DDD contains a few oblique references, both literary (to the Scarlett Letter, no less) and political (one of the girls longs to run for Senate, and worries that she needs a spotless background to enter politics), most of the humor requires a less urbane audience background. Due to the nature of the show, most of those seated in Sister’s nightclub this evening were 20-something members of Generation Porn, all of whom laughed in full comprehension at the jokes, having no trouble understanding the reference during a water-gun fight when one of the girls mock-erotically cried out, “get it all over my glasses.”

Thankfully, Cowle never lets an opportunity for humor go unused, and makes this musical as much about a porn film as Legally Blonde represents the legal field. A few rare intrusions of semi-serious sentimentality (when a voice-over announces, “and now, a song from the heart”) break the mood with no real effect, and display the only moments of awkwardness in a thoroughly ridiculous send-up. Of course, too much of anything wears thin, but by the time Debbie’s plot takes its last twist—having her give up her virginity for more money than she could dream of—this cast has so successfully created a spirit of ludicrousness onstage, that the self-referential attempt at the fringe festival becomes more of a nuisance than a joke. (Not that anyone stopped laughing though.)

Although this show might not make Senich a star (it’s one of the jokes), this production should certainly bring some much-deserved attention to everyone in the cast. Senich delights in her bubbly, naïve portrayal, and an impressive ensemble makes a wild evening out of this material, with Caitlin Reilly (as the future first lesbian Senator Tammy) and John Greenbaum (in multiple roles) delivering hysterical character-based performances.

I hope that Cowle restages this show later in the season—hopefully in a place with better sightlines—so that larger audiences can better see the wild physical humor of this show, and experience the smash production she’s made of it. Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical was some of the most fun I’ve had at this year’s Fringe.

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