VALLEJO — Many, if not most, local theater companies might be scared to tackle a musical adaptation of a classic pornographic film, but not On The Fringe Visual and Performing Arts. The 1-year-old company kicks off “Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical” on Friday.
On the Fringe founder and the show’s director Maria Stats wanted to stage the company’s first musical. When she saw the title in a catalog, it was a little shocking.
“I saw ‘Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical’ and thought it had to be a joke. I ordered the script and I couldn’t stop laughing. It is complete satire and makes fun of the porn industry, cheerleaders – it makes fun of everything,” Stats, a former cheerleader herself, said.
The 1978 film “Debbie Does Dallas” is one of the most-famous pornographic motion pictures ever released. It is basically about a team of high school cheerleaders trying to earn money to send the title character to try out for the Texas Cowgirls cheerleaders (The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were not amused and sued the filmmakers).
The movie lost its copyright in 1987 and, in 2002, the then-public domain film was adapted into an Off-Broadway musical. While the plot is similar, there is a major difference.
“While it’s based on the porn film, and it is definitely strictly for adult audiences, if you think you’ll see a lot of flesh or anything X-rated, you will be sorely disappointed,” Stats said. “But it is in-your-face funny, self-aware, campy and the sex scenes are replaced by . . . tastefully done songs and musical numbers.”
Stats is hopeful that many are not turned off by the title and practice contempt prior to investigation. Indeed, she initially faced that scenario when seeking actors to bring the show to life.
“I get that the title puts people off. I’ve never heard so many crickets as when I initially put out a cast notice,” Stats said.
A cast was assembled, however, featuring On The Fringe veterans Luke Winders, Jennifer Greene Preciado and Julianna Varney (playing six male characters) among several theater newbies.
The show has had several challenges. One cast member got a new job and moved. Another was hospitalized and had to drop out. The biggest setback was losing the actress playing the title character two weeks before the opening. It is customary to tell actors to “Break a leg!” when launching a show, but that is literally what happened to the original woman tapped to play Debbie.
“I thought I would have to postpone, but some wonderful people stepped up and made my little Grinchy heart grow three sizes,” Stats said.
One of those people was Sharlynn Willingham, a friend of Stats who was already cast in a different role in the show. While Willingham feels the all-around experience of coming together for something bigger than the sum of its parts has been quite positive, switching roles so late in the game has been daunting.
“The biggest challenge has been learning everything on a tight schedule plus finding time and a place to practice. I have two young kids at home and so I obviously can’t practice the songs there because they are not appropriate for kids,” Willingham said. “I practice in the car after I drop them off at school.”
As for Willingham’s progress in such a short time, Stats’ assessment at rehearsals was that “She is killin’ it.”
There will be a 1970s costume contest at intermission of each show and the Artiszen gallery’s pre-show ambiance will echo the vibe of a discotheque.
“Every show we have picked to produce we’ve thought about what the message is we are trying to tell people,” Stats said. “With this one I think we’re saying just to lighten up. For many people it has been a rough year and there’s a lot of tension so let’s blow this off at the end of the year being absurd and silly and a little bit sexy.”
Often actors get into character or research nuances they can bring to their performances by going to the source material. In this show? Not so much.
“I’ve never seen the original movie nor has any of the cast,” Stats said. “It wasn’t required viewing.”