🎭 Not Quite T. S. Eliot | “Bark” @ Theatre Palisades

Bark (Theatre Palisades)I want you to think about musicals and plays about animals — particularly ones told from the animal’s point of view. What comes to mind? For cats, there is (of course) The Lion King and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats.  Both are soaring epics — one based on Hamlet, the other on the poems of T. S. Eliot. Both have remarkable music from remarkable composers, and both have spectacular dance.  Both use the art of costuming to transform their performers into the animals they are portraying. All this for felines that are indifferent to us, at best (unless you have an Aby, as one of my friends will point out).

What about man’s best friend, the dog? Well, there’s Snoopy, the sequel (in some sense) to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Never a big hit. There’s the play Sylvia, about a dog and her owner. Both are funny, and either that particularly memorable.

In 2004, the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood introduced yet another musical about dogs: Bark! The Musical.  Bark! featured music by David Troy Francis (FB), with lyrics by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard (FB), Robert Schrock (FB), and Mark Winkler (FB), with additional music by Jonathan Heath and Danny Lukie. The book was by Mark Winkler (FB) and Gavin Geoffrey Dillard (FB). Bark! told the story of six dogs through song, and was the longest running musical in the Coast’s history. They produced a cast album in 2005, which I picked up in 2008 and enjoyed.

Fast forward to this year. I’m scheduling October, and I get an email from Goldstar about Bark! being performed at Theatre Palisades (FB). I was unfamiliar with the theatre, despite the fact that it was across the street from my high school (it opened 11 years after I graduated), but Bark! was on my list of shows that I had only heard but not seen. I knew they had good talent, because they had cast a friend of mine in a recent show there.. So I got tickets for last night. The theatre is quite impressive for a community theatre, with a stage that could house 2 99-seat theatre, including substantial space in the wings. The show also gave us the opportunity to see the new Caruso Palisades Village while we hunted down dinner.*
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*: So what did we think of it? A nice walking space with a good village feel. The stores that were opened were nice. It didn’t, however, have quite the old “downtown Palisades” feel of the days of the House of Lee and Morts. It was a Caruso-sanitized shopping experience, which didn’t make it bad, just … overpriced. Given the growth of housing prices and the wealth in that community, perhaps that’s more appropriate now than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

As for Bark! The Musical. This ain’t Cats folks. Cats are complex creatures, with quirks and oddities that inspire, well, poets. Dogs are simpler: give them love, attention, play with them, and for the most part, they’ll love you back unconditionally. The musical is equally simple: a series of songs sung from the dog’s point of view about their lives. The characters in the show represent a mix of dog types: King, an older dog whose boy has gone off to college; Boo, a scruffy dog owned by a family; Chanel, a poodle owned by a gay couple; Golde, a pampered dog owned by a Jewish couple, Sam, a mutt, and Rocks, a puppy. The songs aren’t particularly deep (c’mon, they sing about wizzing on cats!), but they are entertaining and enjoyable. A few of them are particularly moving. All in all, it makes for an enjoyable night out that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. In particular, given the events of the recent weeks, it gives a night out where you don’t need to think about politics (although there are a few folks I’d love to take a wiz on).

Under the direction of Susan Stangl (FB) with choreography by Heidi Dotson (FB), the actors do a reasonable job of capturing dog mannerisms — the excitement, the scratching, the nervousness, and so forth. But unlike the productions for their larger feline siblings, the mannerisms only went so far. You knew these actors as their characters, but they didn’t become dogs. I think a bit more imagination and creativity might have been required to create that illusion, including a stronger use of perspective in the set design, more ecovative costume direction, and such. But then again, this is community theatre with community theatre resources — so for what they had, they did well. The director did build a good chemistry within the team, and the dance worked will with the skill of the performers.

Of the six “dogs”, I really liked three of them. Two others were a close second, and the last was promising but needed to grow into his feet. In the favorite’s positions were Julie Hinton (FB) [Chanel]; Greg Abbott (FB) [King]; and Elena Coleman (FB) [Boo]. Hinton was extremely strong, with a truly remarkable singing voice, and a playfulness and personality that shined through her performance. She was really strong in her solo number, “‘Il Cane Dell’ Opera”, but was equally fun in numbers like “Siren Symphony” and “Three Bitches”. Abbott also brought a remarkable personality and a strong voice to his numbers, really capturing his character well. This was most noticeable in “A Grassy Field”, but also in his number about “Lassie”. I just really enjoyed watching him (and I kept wondering if he was the same Greg Abbott that went to Pali in the 1976-1977 time period). Lastly, there was Coleman’s Boo, who was not only really cute, but brought that cuteness to her personality and character. She also had a strong voice and strong acting skills, which she demonstrated  in numbers such as “Guarding Janie” and “Life Should Be Simple”.

In the second tier, down just a notch, were Marina Tidwell (FB) [Goldie] and Peter Miller (FB) [Sam]. Both were just a bit weaker on the singing side, but really strong on the acting side. Tidwell was a hoot in “Hey, You” and the “Howling numbers, and hilarious in “Cones” about the cone of shame. Miller’s Sam was fun in the background scene, and really really funny in the “M-U-T-T Rap” and “Seniorita La Pepita” numbers. The comic performances from both were just great.

In the third tier was the puppy of the group, Ben Fuligni (FB) [Rocks]. His performance was not bad, but truly a case of “growing into his feet”. This young man clearly has talent, and embodied the puppy personality and enthusiasm well. He simply needs a bit more experience and training and time, so when contrasted with the others in the cast — it showed. I look forward to seeing him in more local production as his experience grows.

Music was provided by an on-stage band: Gary Nesteruk (FB) [Music Director, Keyboards]; Dan Radlauer and Dave Kief (FB) [Bass]; and Tom Zygmont (FB) [Drums].

Turning to the production side of the show: The set and lighting design was by Sherman Wayne, and it worked reasonably well. There could have been a bit more forced perspective in the set to give the realization that we were seeing this through a dog’s eyes; instead, it was a if the dogs were the size of humans. But again, this is community theatre, so there’s a bit more leeway. It was supported by sound and projection design by the director,  Susan Stangl (FB). These worked very well, especially during the “M-U-T-T” number with the large variety of dogs. Also doing double duty was the choreographer, Heidi Dotson (FB), who did the costumes. Here was perhaps my largest quibble: other than being in a dog-appropriate color palette (browns, whites, greys), the costumes did not evoke “dog”. I think a tad more costume creativity was needed to provide that evocation, which would have helped the suspension of disbelief aspects a bit more. Other production creidts: Josh Harper (FB[Stage Manager]; Joanne Reich [Poster Design, Scenic Design]; Ria Parody Erlich (FB) and Sylvia Grieb [Producers]; Gavin MacLeod and Arnie Wishnick (FB[Executive Producers].

Bark! The Musical continues at Theatre Palisades (FB) through October 7, 2018. It is a cute show, and an enjoyable way to pass the evening. Tickets are available through the Theatre’s website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

October starts with Oppenheimer at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). The following weekend brings Moon River -The Music of Henry Mancini at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). The third weekend of October brings Shrek at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October will close with the Contemporary Crafts Show in Pasadena.

Continuing the lookahead: November starts with She Loves Me at Actors Co-op (FB) and Stitches So Cal. The second weekend of November is very busy: Dear Even Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and A Bronx Tale at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), as well as A Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (OERM) (FB). The third weekend of November brings Finks at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB). Thanksgiving weekend has Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), followed by a hold for the Canadian Brass at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Then we may travel up to the Bay Area for Tuck Everlasting at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (FB). Lastly, January will start with Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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