If you like your women barefoot and pregnant, fear America’s inevitable plunge into socialism, and lament “kids these days” – preferably to the strum of a guitar or banjo – well, you may be Doyle Mayfield, one-half of the tenuously tied together duo at the heart of Bruce Arntson’s The Doyle and Debbie Show, now playing at Stages Repertory Theatre.
Doyle, as his singing partner Debbie politely describes, is an “overlooked country legend,” one with a string of sort-of hits and a rap sheet longer than his arm behind him. Though he’s been on a decade-long hiatus (one marked by multiple divorces, copyright infringement, fraud, embezzlement, bankruptcy, and a breakdown), and it seems Doyle’s day has come and gone, he’s ready to make one last grab for fame. With three years sober, he’s recruited his third Debbie, a single mother of three he poached from her regular singing gig at a rural Tennessee VFW, and together they’re about to take the stage for Doyle’s first performance in Nashville in 11 years. To Debbie, performing with Doyle is a “ticket to the big time,” but unfortunately for her, their comeback show is on the anniversary of his father’s death, a touchy subject that may put Doyle in danger of falling off the Porter Wagoner, if you will.
Since premiering in 2006, The Doyle and Debbie Show has proven incredibly popular, and it’s easy to see why it’s been constantly performed in Nashville and has even made its way to multiple appearances on Conan O’Brien’s late night show. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, an over-the-top satire that both harks back to a great era of country music – and artists like Wagoner, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and more – while affectionately skewering it all. The power dynamics of those ‘70s and ‘80s country duets, the “conservative” values often associated with country music, and dated attitudes in general. The material was ready to be lampooned and Arntson did it in a brisk, 90-minute one act.
Arntson has said that he thinks of himself “more as a musician than a playwright,” and – without taking a side – the music of The Doyle and Debbie Show does prove one thing: He’s a darn fine composer and lyricist. It’s also clear the decades he’s spent living in Nashville and the hours upon hours he’s spent watching shows like The Porter Wagoner Show and Pop Goes the Country for the CMT biography show Inside Fame have served him well. Arntson knows this music, the melodies and lyrics true and familiar – “I know you’re leaving / And you can’t stop me” croon Debbie and Doyle to each other – until Arntson cranks the satire to 11. For reference, those lyrics are from a song titled “When You're Screwin' Other Women (Think of Me)”. For plenty of these songs, like the spot-on “Be Still My Heart”, if you sneaked them in the middle of one of those Time Life compilation CDs, you might not even notice. That is, until they started singing about creamy thighs.
Though Arntson certainly gets credit for blending some of the irreverence of the era’s music – "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" or "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)", anyone? – with a sharper eye and tongue, it’s Director Kenn McLaughlin and Music Director Steven Jones who had to lead the three-person cast along the tightrope of Arntson’s making.
Luke Longacre’s Doyle is a man who’s crawled his way back to the bar in the last chance saloon. He is broken, worse for the wear, and stuck in the past. But he hasn’t given up, and in Longacre’s hands, you don’t want to give up on him either. Longacre not only sings, but yodels during “Laura Lee”, scats and emits some very NSFW sounds during “I Ain't No Homo (But Man You Sure Look Good to Me)”, and speeds through a laundry list of foodstuffs like an auctioneer in “Fat Women in Trailers.” He’s also got some moves that any drunk uncle on a dance floor could appreciate.
Much like Doyle says to Debbie, we can all say, “That girl can really sing,” to Chelsea Ryan McCurdy. As Debbie, McCurdy is a ray of sunshine. She’s likable, relatable, and sympathetic. She’s also got a bright, clear voice, with a twang that seems to come from channeling all the great ladies of country and an easy belt that’s all skill and ability. She’s a treat in her solos, like the outrageously regressive “Barefoot and Pregnant” and the acronym-heavy “ABC's of Love”, and just as magical in her duets with Longacre. Together they make “For the Children” an overwrought showstopper.
Travis Kirk Coombs plays the long suffering Buddy, who’s been with Doyle through it all. Part hype man, part accompanist, and completely stressed, Coombs’s Buddy is responsible for counting them in and mushing this dog sled along. Both things he does well. Despite being off to the side for most of the show, he gets a couple of great reaction moments, not to mention a trip around the dance floor and a couple of heel clicks.
The creative team really add an authentic note to the production. Longacre’s Doyle is pitch perfectly outfitted in a couple of Costume Designer John Santillan’s faux Nudie suits – one of which, peppered with musical notes, is like an inverted, tackier take on something famously worn by country royalty. McCurdy’s Debbie claims to be a huge Patsy Cline fan, and she starts the show in a red longhorn dress look-alike that will have you doing a double take to make sure it’s not the one Cline made famous. McCurdy gets a couple of costume changes, but regardless of the dress, it seems someone took a time machine back to the early ‘70s to snatch Dolly Parton’s wig, which completes her look.
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Scenic Designer Torsten Louis and Properties Designer Jodi Bobrovsky have transformed the Yeager Theatre stage into the quintessential honky-tonk. An exposed wooden frame, through which you can see quite the patriotic display; multi-colored Christmas lights strung up and hanging down; saloon doors for a little more character. Tables sit on stage, further adding to the music hall feel. While it all seems a little too pristine, you can still imagine boots scootin’ across the floor, and later they actually do.
Travis Doucett is responsible for lighting this concert-musical, and light it he does. The set is bright and warm for much of the show, but Doucett plays with color for a couple of numbers, like the pinks and blues that flash during “I Ain't No Homo (But Man You Sure Look Good to Me)”; sets the mood for others (like the oh-so-serious “For the Children”), and offers a good flicker/haywire effect when Doyle’s father is mentioned. And outside of a brief touch of mike problems at the start, Sound Designer Phillip Owen does well overall, and particularly with the jukebox at the very beginning, and a bit with a walkie-talkie.
The Doyle and Debbie Show isn’t perfect. (At one point, Arntson takes us on a surreal trip during a doozy of a number called “Daddy’s Hair”, which I suppose pays off but still doesn’t seem quite worth it.) Still, The Doyle and Debbie Show is a good time. A kick-up-your-heels, don’t-be-afraid-to-laugh, toe-tapping good time.
Performances continue at 7:30 Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. Through September 8. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $20 to $85.