Plenty of unique films have been turned into musicals over the last few years. Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, The Producers, and Hairspray, just to name a few that have lit up Broadway with their unique perspective on both theatre and film. However, one title has remained elusive. The bittersweet 1978 coming-of-age story Debbie Does Dallas has finally landed onstage at the Jane Street Theatre.
Adapter Erica Schmidt (who also directed) has worked very hard to capture the innocence and frivolity of the original film, never losing sight of the story's emotional and thematic underpinnings. The result is a vibrant, colorful piece, steeped in irony and symbolism, that enjoys pleasing itself while it pleases the audience.
And that's the problem. Debbie Does Dallas is never too clever for its own good, but it also has trouble realizing that there can be too much of a good thing.
The comedy starts off sharp, with high-schooler Debbie Benton (Sherie Rene Scott) and her friends (Mary Catherine Garrison, Caitlin Miller, Tricia Paoluccio, and Jama Williamson) performing a perfectly cheesy cheerleading routine with all the bounce, jiggle, and pep you can imagine. (This and the show's other dances were choreographed by Jennifer Cody.) The dialogue and delivery - simple and unpolished beyond the point of absurdity - suggest a highly entertaining evening ahead.
It's Debbie's dream of becoming a Dallas Cowgirl, and she gets the opportunity, except for one problem. Her parents aren't willing to give her the money to travel to Dallas to fulfill her longing. Luckily, her friends are willing to help her. They start a company called Teen Services and are willing to use their time and enthusiasm to do anything their clients might require. Odd jobs washing cars and sorting candles and boxes quickly give way to more lascivious pursuits, forcing the girls to question their own limits and concepts of morality.
The cast is highly appealing, Sherie Rene Scott finding Debbie's dizzy comic side, singing well, and even occasionally looking old enough to be a high school senior. The other women are all funny, though Garrison's Lisa is a particular standout, bitchy and self-important, sexy and clueless at the same time. The men (Paul Fitzgerald, Del Pentecost, and Jon Patrick Walker) each play a number of different roles, both teenagers and adults, with equal facility, but never get quite the chances to shine (especially in the musical numbers) that the women do.
As for the songs, there are just a few, composed by Andrew Sherman (with additional music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Jonathan Callicutt), and they're decent, but not very memorable, usually being added on top of the action rather than being integrated into it. The thumping of the incidental music is much more appropriate, always supplying the appropriate tone for the show and usually proving more necessary (and less intrusive) to the action.
Debbie Does Dallas is inventive in its storytelling, with Christine Jones's sets, Juman Malouf's great costumes, and Shelly Sabel's lights turning the show into almost a concept musical. The theatre is as likely to be a lowdown nightclub on whose stage all the action happens as it is to be the inner thoughts and feelings of the play's characters. LED displays on either side of the stage keep confusion at a minimum.
But nothing can disguise the fact that this is a one-joke show. Most of the fun comes from waiting to see how the sex acts - obviously excised from the original source - will be presented onstage. (The answer: tamely, if occasionally suggestively.) And the dialogue, taken almost entirely from movie, allows the show's cast to parody both the content and the presentation of the words spoken in pornographic films.
The show is lean at 90 minutes, but still feels overlong (it might be ideal as a five minute sketch on a TV show). The concept is funny - hilarious, really - at the beginning, but it slowly becomes clear that new ideas are few and far between, the style and acting pointing out all too clearly that explicit sex is about the only thing that could make dialogue like this bearable. Of course that's the point, but each repetition without enervating variation dulls the impact of that message.
It's saddest that Debbie Does Dallas never tries to transcend or redefine its original material; if it tried to consistently top itself (as any parody must if it runs for 90 minutes) it might have had more longevity, staying funny consistently instead of settling for what's hilarious the first time, but not appreciably different the second, third, or fourth. If variety really is the spice of life, Debbie Does Dallas could do with a pinch more.
Debbie Does Dallas