Arts & Culture » Live Active Cultures

Two polar-opposite productions, representing the range of Orlando’s GLBTQ theater community

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Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical at the Parliament House

Virginal cheerleading captain Debbie Benton (Takara Anderson) dreams of shaking her pompoms for the Dallas Cowboys, but she can't afford the bus to her audition for America's Team. Her teammates Lisa (Ale Martinez), Donna (Michelle Alagna), Roberta (Sarah Obrock) and Tammy (Katie Ford) rally behind her and form "Teen Services," performing odd jobs (mostly of the blow variety) for their townsmen (Jonathan Speagle, Kyle Stone, Tripp Karrh) to raise the fare. If that synopsis sounds familiar, you may have outed yourself as a connoisseur of vintage porn, because that's the plot of the infamous 1978 skin flick Debbie Does Dallas. Decades after Debbie played the XXX cinemas in Times Square, she returned to NYC in a less lascivious form when Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical became a hit at the 2001 New York Fringe Festival, and went on to a brief off-Broadway run before landing at Orlando's Parliament House.

Adapter Erica Schmidt and book writer Susan L. Schwartz stuck surprisingly close to Maria Minestra's original screenplay – which fell into public domain due to a copyright snafu – but replaced all the explicit intercourse with suggestive slapstick set to songs by Andrew Sherman (with additional music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Jonathan Callicutt). A nudity-free celebration of cis-hetero-normative masturbatory material might seem out of place at the Footlight Theatre. But as producer Tim Evanicki pointed out, there are enough gay undertones – from the football team's homoerotic post-game showers to a Sapphic stretching scene – for Debbie to qualify for his LGBT-centric 2018-2019 season.

To mount Debbie, Evanicki tapped former OW creative director Adam McCabe to helm his first major musical, and the ribald result is an orgy of tame titillation you could (almost) invite your mom along to. McCabe's smartest move was assembling a consistently excellent cast. Anderson is fresh-faced and full-throated in the title role, making Schmidt's underdeveloped songs sound better than they deserve. Martinez is beautifully bitchy as Debbie's frenemy; Obrock's "dumb blonde" schtick is sharp; and Ford injects a subversive edge that's otherwise absent in the by-the-numbers book. Everyone brings explosive energy to the opening scenes, executing Alagna's stage-straining choreography with an ebullient bounce and delivering dialogue with the improvisational looseness of an SNL skit.

Eventually, the script's choppy scenes and too-frequent transitions slow the momentum, and the over-amplified dialogue and synth-heavy backing tracks fatigued me after an hour. However, the cast rallied as the clock counted down, scoring a touchdown in the final quarter. It isn't the tightest or most original musical spoof I've seen, but if you're OK with sloppy seconds, Debbie Does Dallas should do you just fine.

Wind Up 1957 at Savoy

It's easy to take for granted that places like the Parliament House exist openly, but it wasn't always the case. For Wind Up 1957, Savoy's Starlite Room has set the clock back 60 years to re-create an era where gay bars were secret societies stalked by the vice squad. Longtime local actor-producer Scott Browning was inspired to write this original dramatic piece after reading Gay Bar, the groundbreaking memoir of real-life Los Angeles barkeep Helen Branson, warmly embodied here by Carol Begerow-Adubato.

Browning has written himself a meaty leading role in Jim, a bitter vet who is still smarting from his breakup with Pan-ish Peter (Barry Wright), when his ex appears at their watering hole with female fiancée Wendy (Alina Alcantara) in tow. While their soap opera plays out on the dance floor, fellow patrons Scotty (Josh Breece) and Sam (Rashad Alii) explore an interracial romance, Jack (Benjamin Dupree) unloads about his wartime trauma, and Eli (Mitchell Dean Wells) rails against Red Scare tactics.

Director Vera Varlamov achieves impressive verisimilitude in Wind Up 1957, firstly by seating the audience in the midst of the action; the show is "immersive but not interactive," so look but don't touch. Secondly, she's elicited some remarkably naturalistic and empathetic performances from the cast – especially Browning, Begerow-Adubato and Dupree – that create impact through quiet intimacy rather than volume.

At only an hour, there isn't enough time for all the characters to be fully developed, and some of the dialogue ("loneliness hangs here like cigarette smoke") is so self-consciously on-point that it pierces the fourth wall. But Wind Up 1957 features two magical musical moments involving the central love triangle that were emotionally affecting enough to transcend such flaws. Gay culture may now seem mainstream, but this play's earnest plea for acceptance still needs heeding, lest we wind up back where we were in 1957.

skubersky@orlandoweekly.com

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