What “A Mighty Wind” did for folk music and “Altar Boyz” did for boy bands, “The Doyle & Debbie Show” does for country music duos. Celebrating and satirizing country music’s oh-so-spoofable conventions and celebrities, the show has been playing one night a week in Nashville for years and now seeks a sit-down run in Chicago. It will likely take some effort to find its potentially broad audience in this notably “blue” and jazzy town, but here’s wishing the well-performed, pleasurably ridiculous piece much success, and Doyle much luck on his continued recovery.
The show features the fictional re-emergence of Doyle Mayfield (writer-composer Bruce Arnston), a once-successful songwriter and star giving his comeback concert after at least a decade of alcoholism and other much-referred-to but mysterious down-lowness. He performs, as always, with Debbie (Jenny Littleton), although this time she’s his “third Debbie,” a single mother he found performing at a VFW facility. We don’t know what became of his “second Debbie,” except that she was also his third wife, the marriage didn’t end well, and we all must have read about it those many years ago.
Arnston, who wrote songs for and performed in the “Ernest” pics, makes Doyle a perfectly recognizable character and plays Doyle’s cluelessness of his own misogyny with the same perfect pitch as his singing. Even his red suit boasts two silhouettes on the pockets that look like advertisements for a stripper club.
But the raison d’etre of the piece is Arnston’s spot-on songs. In many cases, the titles alone are enough to make you giggle: “Whine Whine Twang Twang,” “When You’re Screwing Other Women (Think of Me),” “I Ain’t No Homo (But Man You Sure Look Good to Me).” Arnston and Littleton deliver these with such polish and emotional sincerity that you find yourself tapping your feet while you laugh.
The show has room for growth, particular outside of its Nashville home, where it’s performed at a well-known Bluegrass venue. It’s easy to imagine that context adding a helpful atmosphere that set designer Kevin Depinet can’t quite re-create in the Royal George’s personality-less “cabaret” space, despite the effort of covering the walls with posters.
And the piece could use more depth in the Doyle-Debbie relationship and the plotting — the third person onstage, Doyle’s buddy Buddy (Matthew Carlton), suggests at the start that we don’t offer Doyle a drink, so you barely need to wonder what Doyle will ultimately pull out during the concert’s “intermission” (the characters get one; the audience doesn’t). The story’s apparent climax comes off as too episodically detached — it’s another funny bit, but not the funniest.
Then again, if the worst you can say about a show is that it’s funny throughout and has trouble topping itself, that should hardly be considered a weakness.
Musical Numbers: “Grandma Flickertail,” “Whine Whine Twang Twang,” “When You’re Screwing Other Women (Think of Me),” “Stock Car Love,” “Barefoot and Pregnant,” “I Ain’t No Homo (But Man You Sure Look Good to Me),” “Be Still My Heart,” “Blue Stretch Pants,” “ABC’s of Love,” “Medley,” “For the Children,” “Snowbanks of Life,” “Daddy’s Hair,” “Laura Lee,” “Harlequin Romance,” “Fat Women in Trailers.”