“No Bones about It”
By: Samuel L. Leiter
July 17, 2019: There’s a new superhero in town and bad cats (the feline variety, not hipsters) had better watch out. His bite may not be as big as his bark but he knows a thing about trailing a kitty’s tail. I’m woofing about Dog Man, the part canine/part human hero of the eponymous musical by Kevin Del Aguila (book and lyrics) and Brad Alexander (music) at the Lortel. Based on a book in Dav Pilkey’s (Captain Underpants) popular Dog Man children’s book series, it’s a perfect kennel at which to board your bored kids for an hour and a half during the dog days of summer. Kibbles to Theater Works USA for offering this fun-filled children’s delight.
And the kids came to the show in packs on Friday, some dressed more like they were going to Cinderella’s ball than to a musical about a couple of nerdy fifth graders doing the old “let’s put on a show” gambit. Those would-be Rodgers and Hammerstein geeks are George (Forest Vandyke) and Harold (Dan Rosales), the first a budding writer, the second a hopeful comics artist. They decide, while hanging out in a rather extensive treehouse, to put on a musical based on the Dog Man character in the comic books they create.
Not only was the house filled with little-girl theatregoers in princess costumes with tiaras and unicorn horns but there were boys, like the adorable seven-or-eight-year-old next to me, wearing tight, black-sequined pants and a gold lamé windbreaker. “Elvis is in the house,” I thought.
The Dog Man title lending its story to this show is, with apologies to Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Kitties.” While it may not have Harry Potter-level fame for decrepit, old reviewers, the Dog Man oeuvre has a place in countless young paws, as witness the audience’s well-muzzled but laughter- and applause-filled attention. These grade-school pups showed commendable aptness at responding to all show’s enthusiastically juvenile humor (some of it funny even to someone in his second childhood).
The audience creates its own “Tale of a Few Kiddies.” The night I went there was an overgrown boy, with a huge head of hair as shaggy as a Tibetan terrier’s ungroomed coat, who kept getting so carried away he kept rising from his seat. Just because he was unleashed didn’t stop his mom from giving him a hearty yank. (Large as he was, this mop top was otherwise content to nestle at his mother’s bosom, like a retriever treated like a lap dog.). Another kiddy seemed from his constant popping up and down to be watching from a pogo stick.
Prepubescent youngster are bound to be spellbound by this doggone upbeat tail-wagger directed and choreographed with exceptional panache by the very talented Jen Wineman. She must have had a big bag of treats (and a rolled-up newspaper) available during rehearsals to get her terrifically polished cast of six through all its delightful hoops.
Only one of the characters, actually, is a purebred of the canine persuasion, and he appears only as a hand puppet manipulated by his dumb-as-a-doorknob policeman partner, Officer Knight (Brian Owen). I won’t go into detail about the silly, child-friendly plot, which seems aimed at anyone from five to ten. No bones about it, you have to pay attention to follow it all, as everyone actually did. Let’s just say that what happens is being made up by George and Harold as it’s being performed, and its chief character is, of course, Dog Man.
He comes into existence when the doofus Officer Knight and Greg the Dog, his smarter sock puppet companion, are blown to bits by a bomb planted by the evil mouser, Petey (James Laverdiere). Knight’s body is too far gone but Greg’s head is still working so the surgeons graft Greg’s head onto Knight’s body in a Frankensteinen operation that made me think they should have called their dumb man-hot dog creation Frankenfurter.
Dog Man—who speaks in mime, grimaces, ruffs, woofs, and yaps—becomes heroically involved in events involving a dead fish named Flippy (Crystal Sha’nae), first seen as another sock puppet, who’s brought back to life by a life-giving spray. She becomes a berserk monster seeking revenge for who knows what by using the spray to bring a number of city buildings to life until she’s finally tamed and learns to get along swimmingly with others..
Another plot line follows the criminally-intent Petey and the innocent L’il Petey (L.R. Davidson), cloned from Petey’s DNA and calling him, to his disgust, “Papa.” Petey struggles to teach L’il Petey to be as evil as he so they can carry out his nefarious schemes but L’il Petey is too darn good to follow the felonious older feline’s lead. Of course, it’s Petey himself who, like Flippy, finally sees how good it is to be good. Or something like that.
There are only seven songs but they’re all sprightly, with truly clever and often very funny lyrics. Technically, the show walks proudly because of Tim Mackabee’s cartoonish set, with scenic pieces (like those living buildings) built of cartons and found objects; Heidi Leigh Hanson’s unique yet simple costumes (including the hilarious robot, 80-HD, with arms and legs of flexible, washing-machine, venting tubes); David Lander’s enchantingly versatile lighting; and Emma Wilk’s superlative sound design.
This pedigreed creative team is matched by a skilled ensemble that seems to be having us much fun as the mutts out front. They sing, dance, act, mug, mime, yelp, and bark with such aplomb they deserve every bow (wow!) they get. As Dickens might say, it’s a far, far better show they’ve done than many I’ve seen before. Dog Man should be every kid’s best friend.
Dog Man, The Musical *****
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through August 4, 2019
Photography: Jeremy Daniel