You’re my man, I’m your pet.  We’re as close as two can get.  You love me to the end. That’s why you are dog’s best friend,” sings Rocks, the Jack Russell pup in  Bark! The Musical, the smash hit returning to the L.A. area for the first time in nearly four years in a supersized staging by Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities that merits five barks out of five.

Bark! introduces us to six of the most lovable pooches ever. Besides Rocks (Dane Biren), there’s Golde, the Pug Boxer (Jessica Gisin), Chanel, the chocolate Bijon Frise (Janet Krupin), Boo, the Apricot Afghan (Shanna Marie Palmer), and King, the Chocolate Labrador (Harrison White), and unlike ALW’s Cats (my least favorite musical ever), Bark!’s canines actually resemble the real thing, not so much physically (thank goodness there are no Cats-like costumes and makeup!), but in the way they embody all the traits that can make a dog lover out of even a former dog hater like CLOSBC Executive Producer James A. Blackman, III.

These tail-waggers sing about “Whizzin’ On Stuff,” the pleasures of being “At The Park,” “Howling Just To Sing Away The Blues,” and dogs’ peculiar habit of joining voices with police, fire engine, and ambulance sirens in “Siren Symphony.” In “Three Bitches,” the titular female canines sing about their perfect lives, Boo with Jim and Jane (“Jane is the perfect wife”), Chanel with Steve and Steve (“Who cares if there’s no wife?), and Golde with Ben and Esther (“I have no cares or strife”).  

Each doggie in the cast gets his or her guaranteed show-stopper. King sings “I’m In Love With Lassie,” Golde gets “Howling Just To Scare Away The Blues,” Sam dreams about “Mighty Men From Mars,” Chanel hits notes only a dog can hear as “Il Cane Dell’Opera,” Rocks croons about belonging to “Dog’s Best Friend,” and Boo boasts about “Guarding Janie.”

Melodies by composer David Troy Francis are as gorgeous and hummable as any you’re likely to hear this year, and spotlight just about every musical genre imaginable, from new age (“Terrier From Mars”) to blues (“Howling Just To Scare Away The Blues”) to hip-hop (“M-U-T-T Rap”) to R&B (“Ruff World”) to sacred music (“Siren Sympony”) to Latin (“Senorita La Pepita”) to straw hat-and-cane pizzazz (“Dirty, Filthy Old Flea Bag”) to swing (“At The Park”). Mark Winker and Gavin Geoffrey Dillard’s charming book is pretty much plot-free, serving mainly to link the songs, with clever lyrics by Dillard, Winkler, and Robert Schrock and additional lyrics by Jonathan Heath and Danny Lukic.

There have been changes since Bark! played its two-year run (3rd longest in L.A. theater history) at the Coast Playhouse. The show now has two very different sets, the first act taking place at Doggy Day Spa and the second “at the Park later that night.” The title song has been moved from its position as the show’s opening number to the Act One closer, and given a new twist. (The five bigger, gruffer dogs attempt to teach little Rocks to bark instead of yip and yap.)  “At The Park” now introduces the new second act setting. The poignant but quite downbeat “The Pound Song” is gone. “Hey You” changes from a Golde soliloquy to a six-dog dialog. The alterations seem well-thought out, making this Bark! not only bigger but better as well.

Performances are all around stupendous.  Biren is an adorable charmer, breaking out of the CLOSBC ensemble to demonstrate his comic chops and fine singing voice. Gisin, another popular CLOSBC regular, goes from Maysie The Bird in December’s Seussical to Golde the JCP (Jewish Canine Princess) in Bark!, and what a great belter she is in “Howling Just To Scare Away The Blues.”  USC senior Krupin continues her rapid trajectory towards stardom with yet another spectacular performance, her coloratura soprano in “Il Cane Dell’Opera” every bit as amazing as the sky-high belt she exhibited in last month’s Urinetown The Musical at SC. Palmer goes from her December high-flying turn as a boy named Peter (Pan) to a dog called Boo, her rendition of “Guarding Janie” a show highlight. White is, as always, nothing short of sensational as King, whether warbling “I’m In Love With Lassie” or wringing tears from a stone with a dog’s farewell to this world in “A Grassy Field.”  L.A. musical theater newcomer Wilcox matches his costars every step of the way, whether getting down with “streetest” dogs in town in “M-U-T-T Rap” or donning Carmen Miranda drag in “Senorita La Pepita” or exhibiting a voice to reach the rafters in “Mighty Mutt From Mars.”

Stephanie A. Coltrin’s direction is as always impeccable, as is Daniel Gary Busby’s musical direction of the show’s six-piece band.  Karl Warden, the best Will Parker ever in CLOSBC’s Oklahoma!, does terrific work choreographing dance numbers in multiple genres that fit each song to a T. 

Scenic designer Christopher Beyries has done a marvelous job of transferring an intimate theater show to a stage as big as the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center’s, with his Act One multi-level Doggy Day Spa and Act Two’s beautiful star-lit dog park. Darrell J. Clark’s lighting is often exquisite, and John Feinstein’s sound design is crystal clear. Rather than try to make the performers look like actual dogs, Christa Armendariz has costumed them according to their personalities to winning effect, from Rocks’s overalls to Sam’s t-shirt, leather vest, and jeans, to Chanel’s black crinoline French maid’s outfit.

Though Bark! The Musical’s small cast and orchestra reflect today’s economic realities (and a major reduction from CLOSBC’s big budget productions last season), there is no stinting on entertainment value.  In fact, I enjoyed Bark! even more than its predecessor Seussical. For those moments when life can be a bitch, there’s no better way to cure the blues than by spending a couple hours with these (pardon the expression) bitches and their studly male counterparts.  You’ll likely find yourself barking out your approval and howling with delight.

CLO of South Bay Cities, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.

–Steven Stanley
February 13, 2010
                                                                             Photos: Alysa Brennan

Comments are closed.