Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical
Not that director Robert Mitchell's new show is literally pornography (as far as I can tell)I just wouldn't bring my mom. Or my sisters, or my niecesbut only because anything (naughty or nice) done live, even in pantomime, always seems ten times more powerful than anything you might see or hear coming out of a flat screen. The gentleman sitting in front of me on opening night was literally writhing in his seat, and not in a good way, near the end.
But only a few moments after that writhing attack, Macia Noorman (Debbie) rescues us by breaking the fourth wall, and the unbearable tension of 90 minutes of bump-and-grind comedy, before the show is finally played out. Call it burlesque, call it "The Carol Burnett Show" gone terribly, terribly wrong, or call it a tribute to the ancient Greeks, who really knew what to do with a large, fake phallus. But laughing at one sight gag, and then enduring the growing torment of ten more, and ten more, and on and on, is a little like the old punishment for getting caught smoking a cigarette as a kid: your dad makes you smoke a whole carton, till you feel a bit wretched and damaged for some time afterward.
In any case, five very smart and very funny young actresses play Midwestern high school cheerleaders, trying to raise money to send one of their own to Dallas to become a "Cowgirl" for the local football franchise. They naively embark on a series of "money raising" adventures, in what amounts to a sort of distaff Stand By Me. Except that, of course, there's very little standing involved.
The direction is brisk and wise and the vignettes flow almost perfectly, one after another, in spite of a crazy number of off-stage costume changes for the three young actors (who are also very smart and funny). The five young women generally change clothes on stage, which is a real time-saver, as you can imagine. But it's not exactly a musical, per se: the first little song is about 18 or 20 minutes in, and then there's another little one about ten minutes later, and then a third about twelve minutes later and, well, you get the picture.
Still, it's important to remember that the cast has an expert grip on the comedy that lies just beyond the wearying salaciousness. Ms. Noorman, in the title role, exudes earnest exuberance; Rachel Hanks is calculating and hard as the "bad girl" (and, yet, she was so darned endearing in A Feminine Ending earlier this year); Jane Tellini is somehow girlish and smoldering at the same time; and Elizabeth Graveman and Bitsy Bittersweet are amazing as two sort-of bright, innocent girls who are hilariously fazed, again and again, by the dim recognition of what they're going through in their great quest.
Reginald Pierre is very good as the (mostly) quavering small businessman and as the (mostly) quavering librarian; Tom Lehmann probably has to put his face under a steam iron every night, just to wipe off a fantastically frightful leer after the show; and Chris Ayala is great as the cocky football quarterback and a nose-in-the-air rich kid.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have just re-read an e-mail I sent to a friend right after seeing this show, where I was perhaps a little more direct: "horrified" and "appalled" were the words I used in describing my immediate reaction to the 1,000 incidents of pantomime porn. Ms. Tellini's number about wax candles, with Mr. Lehmann, is one example of the show smashing through the boundaries at 120 miles per hour. In spite of that, on almost any other plane, Debbie does well as polished and credible theater, even when it's just passing itself off as "cautionary tail."
Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical (by Erica Schmidt, Andrew Sherman and Susan L. Schwartz), based on the 1978 movie, continues through August 20, 2011, at the Regional Arts Commission, across from the Pageant Theater at 6128 Delmar Blvd., about a block east of Skinker. I brought a chair pad, since you sit on hard wooden seats the whole time (which probably enhances the overall sense of mortification). For more information call (636) 236-4831 or visit them on-line at www.nptco.org.