‘Doyle & Debbie Show’ an affectionate country music burlesque

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JC Clementz. — PHOTO: Courtesy Milwaukee Rep

There’s only one musical with the audacity to make a honky-tonk pun out of a German artistic movement, and the “‘strum’ and drang” musical in question is on its way to the Stackner Cabaret.

The Milwaukee Rep’s 2014–15 season kicks off with The Doyle & Debbie Show, a concert/musical hybrid of the sort the company’s grown famous for staging in its cabaret theater. The play depicts the Nashville debut of the fictitious Doyle & Debbie: a country duo composed of Doyle Mayfield (Michael Accardo), a washed-up singer trying to finally pull off a successful comeback after an emotional breakdown, and his fourth or fifth Debbie (Erin Parker), the young co-star he found singing at a VFW in southern Tennessee.

It’s a story that sounds ridiculous, and director JC Clementz promises it is. “When I first read this piece,” he says, “I had tears coming down my face, I was laughing so hard.” 

Clementz, who directed Forever Plaid in the Stackner Cabaret last year, says Doyle & Debbie is similar in that it takes the form of a real concert, with the characters interacting with the audience as they would in an actual performance. But the play’s subject matter and tone are different, closer to irreverence than anything else.

“It’s a parody, but I also think it’s a love song to country music as well,” Clementz says. “We never make fun of it, we make fun with it.”

The play’s songs, all original, run the gamut of classic country music, from upbeat honky-tonk to soulful ballads. But each deals with over-the-top subject matter or features preposterous lyrical conceits. There’s an ode to “Fat Women in Trailers.” Debbie sings of the “ABC’s of Love” by packing her sentences full of initials. Doyle’s hit ballad has the incomparable title “When You’re Screwin’ Other Women (Think of Me).”

What differentiates the songs from mean-spirited lampoons of country music is the earnest treatment Accardo and Parker give their characters.

“(Classic country singers) sang about real things,” Clementz says. “And if that real thing was your dog dyin’, you wrote a song about it. ... That’s what I think makes the play so funny.”

Around the songs, creator Bruce Arnston (also the original Doyle) builds a storyline through the duo’s banter with each other, the audience and bandleader Buddy (Bo Johnson), whose “band” is now a laptop due to financial constraints. Much of the storyline is devoted to Doyle’s prior breakdown and the increasingly relevant fact that their Nashville show takes place on the anniversary of his father’s death.

But Clementz says the show also delves into Debbie’s lifelong love of the Doyle & Debbie duo, and how her impression of her idol shifts as she gets to know him better through the evening.

As the Rep’s casting director, Clementz had the opportunity to select the actors he’d later direct. The 2007 play was specifically designed in its original version for actors with a wide range of vocal prowess that proved tough to emulate. He says the show also requires actors with strong comedy chops, as well as an understanding of the country genre.

Ironically, Clementz wasn’t versed in country music before becoming the production’s director. That’s how he knows it will be a hit with more than country music-lovers, he says.

“If you’re not a fan of country music, I think you’ll enjoy it just as much as if you are. The music is catchy, the songs are great and the performances that you’ll see are just stellar.”

Stackner Cabaret Season 

Doyle and Debbie aren’t the only talented artists visiting the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret this season. Read on for a concert billing that spans the coming months at the company:

Liberace! (Nov. 7–Jan. 11): The Rep’s beloved tribute to Liberace returns for an encore performance, bringing along Jack Forbes Wilson to reprise his role as the flamboyant virtuoso.

The Beautiful Music All Around Us (Jan. 16–March 15): Legendary musician Stephen Wade presents a one-man show that pays tribute to Southern musical traditions and folksong, through spoken word, projected images and live performance.

Low Down Dirty Blues (March 20–May 24): Four actor-musicians tune up to honor the blues in this after-hours performance featuring rhythms and riffs from Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Sophie Tucker and more.

On stage

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Doyle & Debbie Show will run Sept. 5-Nov. 2 at the Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $40. For showtimes and more information, visit milwaukeerep.com or call 414-224-9490.

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