Playhouse cleans up, sends up infamous 'Debbie Does Dallas'

Christopher Blank/Special to the Commercial Appeal
Cast members of the stage musical “Debbie Does Dallas” limber up in this parody of the famous X-rated film, running March 1-24 at Circuit Playhouse.

Christopher Blank/Special to the Commercial Appeal Cast members of the stage musical “Debbie Does Dallas” limber up in this parody of the famous X-rated film, running March 1-24 at Circuit Playhouse.

“Debbie Does Dallas”

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 24

Where: At Circuit Playhouse, 51 S. Cooper.

Tickets: All opening weekend tickets are $22. Information: 901-726-4656.

As the number of movie-based stage musicals continues to grow, it’s not uncommon for the casts of said musicals to get together for a viewing of the source material. This season alone at Playhouse on the Square, actors have bonded over videos of “Legally Blonde” and “Sunset Boulevard.” The musical version of “The Color Purple” opens in June.

But for sheer social awkwardness, nothing beats the cast screening of the film “Debbie Does Dallas,” spoofed in the stage musical opening tonight at Circuit Playhouse.

To start with, nobody owned a copy of the infamous 1978 film, which, next to “Deep Throat,” is likely the most well-known title in the pornographic genre.

A Playhouse board member purchased a copy on the Internet with the condition that he get to host the “movie night.” Also awkward.

At the appointed hour and bolstered with wine and popcorn, the cast of five women and three men gathered in front of the board member’s television and shared the “uncomfortable” experience of viewing porn in mixed company.

“We were mortified,” said the musical’s director Courtney Oliver.

For Oliver, that group mortification had as much to do with the film’s poor artistic quality as it did the sexual content.

“The movie is terrible,” Oliver said. “It’s not just terrible, it’s gross. No part of it is sexy. There is so much hair hair in places where hair should not be. The lighting is horrible. The acting is bad. But we are putting on a spoof, and if we don’t know what we’re working from, then we aren’t doing our jobs. We actually had to watch it.”

“Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical,” created as an Off-Broadway parody in 2001, uses the same script as the film, though the sex scenes have been transformed into musical numbers, ranging from a tap dance to a tango. The plot centers around a group of high school cheerleaders raising money (via sex) to send their virginal friend Debbie to Texas to tryout for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad.

While the musical abounds with sexual innuendo, Oliver says that the show is far less suggestive than the title. “I wanted to make children’s theater with adult subject matter.”

There’s an obvious conflict of interest in the warning Playhouse attached to its promotional material: “No Nudity. No Profanity. No Violence. Based on a Porn.”

Executive producer Jackie Nichols says he isn’t sure what to anticipate in terms of an audience.

“If you’re offended because it’s a porn, then you probably won’t come, even though there’s nothing really offensive,” Nichols said. “And if you’re coming for sex and nudity and trust me, people line up out the door when we have nudity you might be upset, because it’s just a comedy. What’s funny is that there’s more sex and nudity across the street at our other theater where we’re putting on ‘Angels in America,’ and that won a Pulitzer Prize.”

So who, exactly, is the intended audience for “Debbie Does Dallas”? Middle-aged men who saw the videotape back in college?

Cassie Thompson, 23, says she expects young people intrigued by the title and the comic treatment, even if they’ve never seen the movie. Thompson, who portrays Debbie, took the part before she saw her character “in action.’

“My boyfriend at the time was like, ‘Do you know what that movie is?’” Thompson said. “Watching the movie was awkward, but also kind of eye-opening. Was that honestly what people thought was attractive in the 1970s?”

This isn’t Circuit Playhouse’s first flirtation with X-rated material.

The building itself started out as a family-owned neighborhood movie theater.

When cineplexes became the business model in the ’70s, the theater struggled. The owners sold the Memphian theater to a nightclub owner who showed X-rated movies there.

“That lasted for about nine months,” said Nichols. “About that time video rental was getting popular, so you didn’t have to go to the theater and watch porn around other people. The theater shut down almost immediately.”

Nichols’ company bought the building from the owner in 1985 and renovated it into a live theater.

Once again, a pornographic movie title appears on its marquee.

Thompson realized the impact of those three words when the poster of the musical went up with her face on it.

“It dawned on me that there are people in this town who think that I’m still too young to make a decision like that,” Thompson said. “They don’t realize that we’re not doing a real porn. We’re not taking off our clothes.”

She added, “I do worry a little about the image, though. I have some family members whom I’ve kindly asked not to come see this.”

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