Theater LaB's Debbie Does Dallas, the Musical Offers Plenty of Laughs, But Needs More Characterization

The setup: Take the classic hardcore porn movie, soften it with music, overlay it with an ironic, all-American, can-do attitude, and this is what you get: a goofy G-rated XXX.

The execution: Actress and entrepreneur Susan Schwartz saw gold when she optioned the 1978 porn classic and brought it to the NY International Fringe Festival as a play. She was wise enough not to drop the sex scenes, but moved them decorously behind shower curtains, a cash register or played in slow-mo with clothes on. It was an instant hit, and she realized it could do even better as a musical. This crazy idea of a porn movie with songs would work like gangbusters if there were more of them.

Now, the few songs (by Andrew Sherman, Tom Kitt and Jonathan Callicutt) barely get a verse or two, if we're lucky, before being cut off. Talk about coitus interruptus. Debbie isn't Oklahoma, after all, but think what Avenue Q did with XXX material.

There are plenty of laughs, though, as the itchy high-schoolers learn about the joys of capitalism, firsthand, as it were, as they form Teen Services. "We're good girls," the cheerleaders repeat to the town's dirty old men, "we'll do anything you want." And they do, too, as long as they're paid for it.

The squad pools the incomes from their sexual adventures so Debbie can travel to Dallas for her Texas Cowgirls audition. Since this kind of service never goes out of style, Debbie ends up with a wad of cash. Along the way she loses her boyfriend, "her virginity, her self-respect and heaven," but achieves her dream.

Theater LaB Houston gives Debbie a surprisingly low-gloss production. The slapdash nature points up the overall vulgarity but not the inherent goodhearted mockery. That's left to the able cast members, who relish being innocent little lambs who quickly learn, and like, being big bad wolves.

Adrian Coco Anderson, as the bright-eyed heroine, has appropriately glowing skin and a lovely blank stare to make men go weak -- not all over, of course, or there'd be no play, or world history. Amber Bennett (conscience-stricken Amber), Lydia Meadows (no-nonsense Donna), Caroline Menefee (bitch Lisa, who gets her own credo and sings it plaintively) and Molly Pierce (dense Roberta) are the ambitious girlfriends, with Cameron Bautsch (who wails his anthem "I Wanna Do Debbie" like a teen angel), Bill Nealon and Chris Pool as horny teens and salacious adults.

The verdict: Who wants characterization in a porn movie? But when a porn movie's now a musical comedy, a bit of singing and not much dancing just doesn't go far enough. If we can't clap after production numbers, what else do we do with our hands?

Through October 23. Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516.

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