It's hard to believe it's been almost six years since The Doyle and Debbie Show made its debut at Bongo After Hours Theatre. That's where Nashville audiences first delighted in songwriter/comedian Bruce Arntson's incredibly funny lampoon of country music singers and the hazards and huzzahs of the honky-tonk life.
Supported by actress Jenny Littleton as his onstage singing partner, plus actor/musician Matthew Carlton as sidekick Buddy, Arntson created a rare, small-scale musical with potential for a longer shelf life than the usual original theater piece. D&D stepped closer toward immortality in October when the show took up residence in Chicago for an open run — seven shows a week — at the 200-seat Royal George Cabaret. With a Jan. 10 return appearance on Conan O'Brien's TV show in the can, Arntson & Co. continue their Windy City performances, but also slip back into Nashville two times this month for engagements at The Station Inn, where the show found a long-running home after its initial Bongo gig.
Every major Chicago news outlet has cheered loudly for D&D. No less a critic than the Chicago Sun-Times' Hedy Weiss declared what we in Music City knew long ago: "Watching Littleton, a performer with a sensational, do anything voice, terrific comic acting chops and knockout looks, you have to wonder why she hasn't become a full-blown star far beyond the Nashville city limits. (It won't be long.) ... It is worth the price of admission simply to hear Littleton belt out 'The ABC's of Love' (a catalog of the funniest, most ingeniously connected acronyms imaginable, and a song that seals the deal when it comes to dubbing Arntson a master lyricist)."
Chicago scenic designer Kevin Depinet did his homework in transforming the Royal George, a venue usually host to more cosmopolitan fare, into an authentic Nashville joint, a virtual re-creation of The Station Inn along with Tootsie's-like ornamentation.
"The reviews are a knockout," says Arntson, who spends his days in a hotel facing Lake Michigan in Chicago's Lincoln Park. "We didn't know what to expect in a big market. There was no context for it. Like, what — Hee-Haw with an edge? But they got it. We've gotten great press and good word-of-mouth."
The show's second life began after a limited 2009 run in Austin, Texas, where the author hooked up with the individuals who could help further D&D's future. "I sold the option on the show to a producing group for 10 years, and I have a lot of rights within that," says Arntson, who also credits much help in this process to Bryan Louiselle, a conductor, composer and arranger who freelances for Disney Theatricals.
The producing group is Lonesome Road Productions. Its principals — Karen Berry, Todd Lacy and Jeff Lee — mean to develop D&D along the lines of other low-budget cabaret shows such as Forever Plaid and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. Perhaps a more accurate template for D&D's future, however, is the "boutique" musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, with its pop-country score and rural Americana setting.
Arntson, who indulged his satiric musical bent in the 1999 independent feature Existo, likens his creation to "an odd beast with an odd mix of requirements." Yet now it appears to have become a real theatrical endeavor.
"Everybody's hope is that Chicago will become the anchor production, and from there we've got a fighting chance to develop it further," Arntson says. That means spin-off companies in any market that seems ripe for the taking.
Arntson claims it is "bizarre" to watch the Chicago understudies rehearse the show. "They've never done it for real yet," he says. "The producers are confident that the script will stand up with other performers, even though the material was written around Jenny's and my abilities." (But can they yodel out tongue-twisting lyrics like Music City's Doyle Mayfield?)
As one Austin writer proclaimed more than two years ago, "This is the comedy that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story wanted to be, but didn't have the balls to be." Of course, the Nashville fans who've come to see the show five, six, seven times or more have known that for years. Soon the "heathens on the Coast" will know it too.
"We're having a ball," Arntson says. "We embrace the opportunity to learn a new city. Lincoln Park Zoo is our new Radnor Lake."
Nashville theatergoers who haven't visited The Doyle & Debbie Show's website recently — doyleanddebbie.com — can check it out for all the songs, cool video and photo features, press updates, show schedules and more.
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