By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Sep 08, 2014 at 12:36 PM

There was a time when country music was an honest institution that plucked at the heartstrings and told stories that were uniquely American.

Then along came the world of the music video and the over produced stuff we have today where everybody sings about the same thing and everybody sounds like everybody else and where you can’t go on tour without lights, cameras and action. It’s almost enough to make you shut off the radio for good.

Those older, much better times are at the heart and soul of "The Doyle & Debbie Show," the opening salvo in the season for the Milwaukee Rep. It opened Sunday night at the Stackner Cabaret and runs through Nov. 2. 

There are people who will call this production a parody of country music, but that sells it short. There is nothing burlesque or satirical about this story. It is, instead, a tribute – albeit a very funny tribute – to the glory that was country music.

Doyle Mayfield is on the comeback trail after 11 years away due to a variety of misdeeds – including, as Debbie gleefully points out, embezzlement, fraud, bankruptcy and a host of other troubles.

This Debbie is the third Debbie his show has had over the years, and he’s convinced that she is his ticket back to the top of the country music heap, a place he’s only dreamt of and never really visited. With his long-time bandleader and conscience Buddy, Doyle is sober for the first time in years and ready to roar.

The play, written by Bruce Arnston, is a gig for the new duo with full participation and appreciation from the audience. It is a gig full of some of the funniest songs you will have ever heard.

We know what kind of night we are in store for when Debbie, played by Erin Parker, steps to the microphone with her big hair, sparkles and low-cut gown, and gives us the second song of the night, a tender ballad called "When You’re Screwin’ Other Women (Think of Me)." There is a dramatic earnestness the way she sings this song, and while you laugh, you still feel some of the sense of loss and betrayal so familiar to country music fans.

She follows that one with "Barefoot and Pregnant" while Doyle chimes in with "Blue Stretch Pants" – an ode to a woman he fell in love with – and then "Daddy’s Hair," complete with the unveiling of his dead father’s mop of hair kept in a tin lunch box.

Doyle, played by Michael Accardo, and Debbie return from a break to regale the audience with a medley of their greatest hits including this patriotic anthem. Think Lee Greenwood at his overwrought best with a female partner.

From the Lakes of Minnesota to the Mason-Dixon Line
From KFC to Walmart to the biggest ball of twine
From the pious of the heartland to the heathens of the coast
He spreads his riches evenly to those he loves the most
You’re either with us or against us and if you don’t pass the test
Before you die you’ll wonder why God loves America Best
Bring ‘em on! Bring ‘em on!
If they can’t stand our freedom bring ‘em on!
So say your prayers to the man upstairs
And give ye thanks for the Merles and Hanks.
Look who’s got more guns and tanks
God loves America best.

Director JC Clementz clearly didn’t want this show to be just a joke. He wanted what makes the best humor: honesty without any pandering. And that’s what he got.

Milwaukee’s Jeff Shaetzke continued his impressive run of theatrical contribution as the music director of the show. Shaetzke took three performers, all with striking and powerful voices, and helped them find the places of truth in their songs. There was no mugging here, and there were no sly winks hinting, "Isn’t this all just a joke." Shaetzke and Clementz combined to let these wonderful performers – including Milwaukee’s own Bo Johnson as Buddy – do what they do best: sing songs that go straight to the heart.

The production is a rollicking start to the theater season and one that is full of everything that’s great about country music: a sly sense of humor, an equally sly sense of what makes a good story and a devoted faithfulness to an era gone by and mourned.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.