There is nothing clean-cut about Doyle or Debbie. He, long past his country-music sell-by date, is on his third Debbie. She, a single mom dolled up like a wannabe Dolly Parton, has been forced to take her considerable assets — and East Tennessee twang — out on the road in pursuit of bread for her kids and that girlish dream of Nashville stardom. The only evangelism this needy pair has in mind benefits only themselves. And "The Doyle & Debbie Show," a longtime fixture in Nashville and its environs, never has commanded Broadway prices. These days, old Doyle would probably be grateful for a two-drink minimum.
But the last time I laughed anywhere close to this hard was at "The Book of Mormon."
"The Doyle and Debbie Show," a parody of country music and the new commercial attraction at the wood-paneled Royal George Cabaret honky-tonk, is hilarious. Drop-dead funny. After a long, hard Blue State day, if this washed-up pair doesn't tickle your funny bone with such original Red State spoofs as the jocular "Stock Car Love" ("I miss the pole position") or the moralizing power ballad "For the Children" ("They're gonna grow up thinking Darwin's cool / While God can't even show his face in school"), then you, my likely socialist friend, have got nothing in there to tickle.
In one particularly droll number, "(Just Keep Me) Barefoot and Pregnant," most of the front row at the Royal George Cabaret Theatre was literally doubled over in laughter as Debbie sang just what her kind of woman had to offer a man. At one point an audience member seemed to be in so much out-of-control pain that Doyle and Debbie had to cease their banter and inquire after her well-being.
"I won't gibber / Like a silly women's libber / When your ball game's on TV," Debbie sang, defiant eyes sparkling, globular breasts pushed halfway to the heavens, and years of feminist struggle sent off down the street for a long walk and told never to come back to Nashville.
"The Doyle & Debbie Show" — actually performed by Bruce Arntson as Doyle, Jenny Littleton as Debbie and Matt Carlton as the backup guy Buddy — has several advantages over most shows of this type. First off, it feels authentic: Littleton actually is from Tennessee. Arntson, who once wrote songs for the "Vern and Earnest" franchise, has been hanging around Nashville for decades, observing the species in its natural habitat. So there is no cheap condescension. Arntson, who conceived this deliciously dry piece and penned these killer ditties, knows exactly how to walk that delicate line between critical parody and affectionate tribute; the show doesn't ever feel as if someone is shooting country stars in a barrel of Jack Daniel's.
These performers have palpable affection for their creations. Crucially, the show comes with respect not only for the real dreams of those all-American strivers who come from little, pursue knowledge at the Smoky Mountains Community College, and naturally want to share their worldview with the great country universe, but also for those who try to hang on to fading careers because they can't live without being in front of their fans. In other words, there is nothing mean or vicious. You like spending time with Doyle and Debbie.
But the biggest reason this show deserves to be a smash is that Arntson and Littleton don't violate the most violated rule in musical parody: You must be able to do that which you are parodying better than can the parody-ee (so to speak). These guys can.
Littleton is the more powerful performer of the pair — her voice is fabulous and her Debbie character is exceptionally detailed and closely observed. This is one of the best comic performances of the year in Chicago (perhaps the best), not least because of its craft, total sincerity and the respect for both the pain and dreams of her character. Arntson is at his best when his cheesy Doyle tries out one of the specialty styles — a yodel, or a patter song — that once had him at the top of the charts. In certain rural markets.
"The Doyle & Debbie Show" has two things to fix. One is an intermission that is not an intermission — I suspect this is a remnant of the show's former life in a Nashville bar. You get some necessary between-set back story, but the audience also gets confused about what it's supposed to be doing. We don't necessarily need a break, but we also can't be teased with one. The other is an Act 2 Doyle number called "Daddy's Hair" that jumps the proverbial shark and suddenly takes the show to a different level of absurdity; it's the only unfunny song in the entire show because we can't believe Doyle would ever be doing on a stage what he is doing in this song. (The recovery is mercifully fast.)
That's testament to how fiercely you find yourself believing in these characters and their tawdry, lovable show, fueled by those twin pillars of desperation and hope. Chicago is Doyle and Debbie's Big Theater City coming-out. I suspect it will propel them way past the Nashville city limits.
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: Royal George Cabaret, 1641 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $43.50-$49.50 at 312-988-9000 or doyleanddebbie.com