Don’t you miss those country duos like Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, and Tammy Wynette and George Jones, before things got all Faith Hilled-up and Tim McGrawed-down? I sure do. There was something great and terrible about these pairings, like paternalism, trashiness, and wigs. It was a golden age of something that captured a vulnerability and sassiness in country music that has been eroded by disco dance versions and pop music princesses highjacking the twang out of country music.
Enter Bruce Arntson’s musical The Doyle and Debbie Show, starring newcomer (to Houston) Luke Longacre (Doyle) and one of my favorite actresses, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy (Debbie), who revive Doyle’s career by going on the road after he has already been through two “Debbies” as part of his act. McCurdy is the third “Debbie” who has been discovered after 10 years singing at the local VFW in eastern Tennessee.
Get ready for outrageous and funny songs about heartbreak, cheating, and drinking—all while Debbie’s kids wait in the car for her gig to end.
Jodi Bobrovsky, Travis Doucett, and Torsten Louis knock it out of the ballpark with the honky-tonk set, and there is a great moment when the spotlight moves, and Debbie deftly moves to be in it. This kind of physical humor that accompanies the storyline is one of the elements of surprise that keeps this 80-minute show moving along in a lively fashion.
Speaking of fashion, the costumes designed by John Santillan are superb—cowboy fringe and plenty of cowgirl sequins and all. The results are perfect for the characters we see on the stage. Get ready to enjoy everything from Willie-Nelson-inspired pigtails to musical-note-punctuated pants. What could be better?
While Doyle is not as gifted of a singer as he thinks, the play reminds us of country music as a male-dominated world in which female performers are always in debt to their male “leads.” (Even today, more male country artists get airplay on the radio waves than female singers). He gets to be the star, even though his life is a trainwreck of clichés—all which feed into his outrageous songs. Doyle gets dumb and dumber, but his songs push the envelope, bordering on a Flannery O’Connor kind of grotesque, as he sings about his dead father and his attractions to blue stretch pants. It is one wild ride of a set list, and the audience was laughing at every number.
But the star of this show is the superlative Chelsea Ryan McCurdy as Debbie, who really can sing, and has every move down—the fake smile, the country cute twirl, the sassy comeback. At times she seems like Dolly—at others a little more Tanya Tucker—but this is how you do a composite of characters so that you have a type.
The brilliance of the musical is watching her play into this type in the service of satire, whether it is making fun of the thud-like lyrics of certain country songs, or the “literary” devices of the genre, such as using acronyms to constitute an entire song—which FYI will make you LOL. She is an outstanding comedian, which is the fuel that runs this show. McCurdy subverts the role of the female sidekick and can switch from good-time party girl to cowgirl to patriotic parent in the wink of a false-eyelashed eye. It is stunning to watch. She knows how to fake smile her way through the satirical set-up and song list of the entire show. Only in The Debbie and Doyle Show can a moral debate be captured in a few lines: as in the fear that kids will think that “Darwin’s cool” since “God’s faith” is not in school. The lyrics at times are pure comedy gold—but leave the kids at home, as this show is only for adults.
Just when you think you can’t make fun of one more country music trope, Arntson comes up with the goods, and infuses a darker form of humor that gets at sexism, nativism, and addiction, but not in that preachy way that you might expect. The low humor is pretty clever satire, and when you are wincing, you know the writing has done its job.
Country music has its problems, but that is because it embodies the problems coming from the culture that supports it. And somehow, country music has the guts to sing about it in a way that is sad and funny all at the same time. There is no alternative music that can do this: it's just too emo and serious and 99 percent of the time completely lacking in humor. The only thing is that with this show, you cannot walk in all ready to be chronically offended. And why would you want to do that anyway? You would miss out on all the fun.
Put on your cowboy boots and two-step your way to Stages, where you will never think of country music in quite the same way again.
Thru Sept 8. Tickets from $20. Stages Repertory Theatre 3201 Allen Pkwy Ste. 101. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.