Dare to be different, I always say.
I love to actively seek out and experience the unique, the quirky, the off-the-beaten-path type of stuff, especially in the world of fine arts and entertainment. While radio is attempting to shove what they want to be the “next big thing” down the public’s throat, I scour music sites like eMusic, CDBaby, and (to a lesser extent) iTunes, trying to find artists and bands that I actually want to listen to based on my own personal preferences, not what someone else is telling me to do. I can use wonderful independent or wider-ranging film services like Vimeo or Netflix Instant to find lesser-known movies and hidden gems that aren’t afforded the luxury of national marketing campaigns. Amazing authors working with a smaller press or self-publishing their work are just a few clicks away from discovery on sites like Smashwords, Goodreads, and of course Amazon. Finding that singular, largely-unknown and under-rated slice of goodness really makes me feel like I’m privy to something special, something that I can confidently tell others about and proudly say “’I found this first…I found this on my own.”
That’s my feeling in a nutshell about “Debbie Does Dallas,” the stage-musical version of the kitsch-tastic 1970s pseudo-porn movie of the same name. The iteration I had the pleasure to witness is currently running on stage here in Indianapolis, at Theater on the Square on Mass Ave. The fine folks at TOTS are no strangers to pushing the envelopes with their shows, as I having at one time performed in a TOTS production while being on stage in nothing but a dance belt, a well-placed marijuana leaf, and a smile, can directly attest to. “Debbie” tells a familiar tale: a young, bright-eyed and innocent youth goes on a voyage of self-discovery and personal change while trying to follow a dream.
The only difference between “Debbie” and Shakespeare, really, is that Debbie’s dream is to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, the “’personal change”’ she and her fellow high-school cheerleaders go through is more related to hormones than anything else, and their voyage of self-discovery is just that, in the most literal and physical sense.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, both the show and the cast are clearly having a great time letting loose in front of the audience. The content itself is intrinsically cheesy and entertaining – the story is firmly entrenched in the free-wheelin’ 1970s and there’s no getting around it – but it’s the surprisingly nuanced performances by the cast that really bring the show’s irresistible charm to life. Performing live comedy, especially the goofy, out-of-your-natural-element kind, is incredibly hard to do, and the actors and actresses in “Debbie” all shine in their own ways, playing to their characters’ singular quirks.
In the title role of Debbie, Emily Bohannon exudes the perfect balance of innocence and a growing understanding of sexuality and how the world revolves around it. She’s cute as a button, unequivocally likable, and effortlessly carries the weight of most of the show’s musical numbers (it seems the show’s creators focused what little musical numbers there were primarily on the lead character, although the second act does feature some fun tunes for the entire cast to perform). Maria Meschi plays Lisa, Debbie’s “frenemy” co-cheerleader; she does a fantastic job of playing a subtly evil high school girl, and she also gets the chance to show her vocal prowess in a second-act solo. As Roberta, Linda Heiden absolutely nails the classic ditzy-cheerleader persona from top to bottom, and Andrea Heiden and Betsy Norton round out the cheerleading squad with excellent play off of each other as blissfully-unaware almost-lesbians.
There are guys in the show, too. Zachary Joyce portrays Rick, Debbie’s boyfriend and star high school quarterback; Joyce plays the role to spot-on perfection, presenting (physically and mentally) as the typical ‘70s porn-star leading man, replete with awesome moustache and an odd indifference to getting into sexytime situations with both guys and girls. Ryan Dunn and Rich Tunnell both play double-duty as H.S. football players and a variety of other male-adult characters, with Dunn earning a special mention for playing a host of random but always-entertaining personas. Rounding out the cast is Carl Cooper, who seems right at home in the finest of retro clothing as he also plays multiple roles of the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, a seemingly-innocent candle-store owner, and a not-so-innocent older man who first turns the girls on to the fact that “Teen Services” can mean a lot more than a simple innuendo.
The true mastery of the cast’s performance lies not in the “main” moments of dialogue and music, but in the small moments of comedy and “subtle” acting in between their words and when the primary attention of the audience is supposed to be directed to a different part of the stage. Bohannon, Dunn, Joyce, and Linda Heiden particularly excel in this area, and it is this attention to detail and dedication to “acting through the end of the scene” that helps create a totally enjoyable experience for this show.
Choreographed with chintzy aplomb by Erin Cohenour (special mention to the tap-dancing glory of the song “The Dildo Rag”) and directed with a zealous embrace of all things tacky by Andrew Ranck, “Debbie Does Dallas” is a show that should certainly make you laugh and – pardon the innuendo – make you want to come again and again. If porn mustaches were a rating system, this would be a 5-’stacher for sure. Yes, it’s an adult-themed show, but with this knowledge beforehand, you can obviously make your own choice to either relax and have fun with it, or simply pass on seeing it if you’re that concerned about what the ladies at the Bridge Club might think. Personally, I highly recommend the first option, and then tell the card-playing ladies to lighten up and enjoy life a little bit.
Tickets, performance information, and more can be found on the Theater on the Square website.