A lack of pep is definitely not the problem for “Debbie Does Dallas,” the Off Broadway musical adapted from the celebrated 1978 porn flick. The talented actresses gleefully bouncing their way through the show, impersonating a pack of innocently lascivious cheerleaders, at times seem positively drunk with it. But no amount of amiable goofing could entirely compensate for the aimlessness of the spoofing, and the general, uh, limpness of the wit on display here.
A popular title from the summer’s Fringe Festival, the show was originally conceived by Susan L. Schwartz, who also starred in that version. For the show’s move to the Jane Street Theater and a full Off Broadway production, the producers added Erica Schmidt as adapter and director (Schwartz retains credit for the conception). “Aida’s” original Amneris, Sherie Rene Scott, now plays the title character, the head of a high school pep squad who dreams of a career as a Dallas Cowgirl Cheerleader.
But all that adapting and conceiving hasn’t resulted in a particularly clever — or even discernible — point of view toward the show’s unlikely source material. Although it borrows the plot, characters and most of the dialogue from the original movie, the stage version isn’t really a satire of the imbecilities of porn dramaturgy, ripe thought the subject is for such treatment. It merely uses the details of the original for its own purposes, which are mostly juvenile sex gags and general mockery of hyperactive teen spirits.
Scott’s Debbie is the head of a squad of squeaky-voiced, glossy-lipped girls — a vastly more attractive bunch than the squad from the movie, by the way, which was made well before porn became a billion-dollar industry — who chip in to help their leader get to Dallas to pursue her cheerleading ambitions. They form a company — Teen Services — and get innocuous after-school jobs, but soon find there is more money in some kinds of manual labor than others.
All the sex sequences from the movie are reproduced in scenes that range from PG to NC-17, some with splashy, Busby Berkely-in-miniature musical numbers added (cute costumes by Juman Malouf). But the humor is vastly more vulgar than inventive, as in a sequence set in the candle store where Roberta has found employment, which features the girls dancing with candles shaped like erect penises and singing lyrics like, “Stroke it/Poke it/Careful not to choke it.” A little of these feeble, tasteless antics goes a long way, and after a while embarrassment for the actresses — yes, one is required to fellate a banana — takes over for good.
Embarrassment aside, one can admire their general enthusiasm, although they could certainly turn the volume down a notch or two. Mary Catherine Garrison, as the baby-faced Lisa, who has the hots for Debbie’s boyfriend, is often very funny as a girl with just one thought in her bubbled head. As Tammy, a redhead who resists the girls’ business plan for fear it will ruin her chances to run for the Senate one day, Caitlin Miller proves a delightfullly loopy comedienne. She has one of the show’s few authentically witty lines when she complains to another one of the girls, “But we didn’t even try a bake sale!”
Scott does what she can with the central role, but the show’s uncertain tone trips her up: In the midst of the general tongue-in-cheekiness, Debbie suddenly sits down to sing an earnest pop-rock ballad about following her dreams. Huh? (The score, mostly but not exclusively credited to Andrew Sherman and Schmidt, is negligible, to put it charitably.)
Eventually, even the cast’s endearing clowning grows wearisome — and it’s definitely a sign of desperation when the actors repeatedly resort to feigned discombobulation at the hilarity of their own antics. The truth is the show’s creators seem to have concluded that the concept alone was brilliant enough to carry the show, regardless of the quality of its execution. They’re wrong.
In fact the movie, with its scarily hard-bitten performers (Misty Winter, Sherri Tart…) making desultory attempts at acting, and repeatedly proclaiming their virginal innocence in leathery voices, possibly provides more laughs. The biggest comes before the action has started, actually, when the credits name the director of photography as one “Billy Budd.” No doubt that explains the camera’s saucer-eyed fascination with these nubile young virgins.