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Dogs Look at Life, Love and the Blessing of Being Given a Second Chance

October 01, 1998|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a sad, abused little pup runs away from his owner and ends up in the pound, three fellow inmates of varying pedigree give him their dogs'-eye view of life and a helping paw in Theatre West's funny and very touching new Youth Theatre production, "DogMusic."

Written by Mark Masi, who directs and composed by Jess Platt, this original professional musical needs only some fine-tuning in the physical production; there's no stinting in its expressive, sophisticated score, sensitive script and affecting performances.

The show opens with the recorded overture to the orchestral electronic score, conducted in silhouette by an energetic figure behind a long white screen. The figure turns out to be the show's narrator-observer, Heather (Cecily Adams), who has a story to tell about a special dog named Ozzie.

First, however, there's a far-off canine howl--"a broken heart," she explains. Listen harder, she urges, and there comes a sudden arc of sweet music--"a sound most people never hear, dog music," the sound "a dog's heart makes when it has been chosen" to be loved.

Mood set, Heather segues into Ozzie's story, which begins as a cruel little boy named Jimmy (Ellen Idelson), "a beastly piece of work," is demanding that his self-absorbed soap opera-watching mother (Valri Jackson in pink curlers, unlit cigarette in hand) buy him a dog.

This exquisitely timed, wickedly funny musical highlight is a back-and-forth staccato exchange between mother and son with slower, cajoling rhythms to accompany Jimmy's calculating tactics as he switches to flattery and promises of responsibility.

Success brings him Ozzie (Idelson again; "Jimmy" is heard offstage), but all it brings Ozzie is torment and neglect: "So, the heart aches, the eyes grow teary, the nose runs and the wag gets weary. . . ."

It's not long before Ozzie runs away and lands in the pound. From there, the show goes to the dogs, literally, as each inmate tells his or her story. Although lags in timing leave the actors too obviously awaiting their musical cues, the stories dig deeper than expected, giving with humor and poignancy a layered look at what a dog's life may be, happy and sad.

Besides innocent Ozzie (Idelson offers just the right mix of vulnerability and spirit), there's mangy and smelly Dumpster (Jim Beaver), whose person, a homeless man, was taken away; Millie (Jeanne Bates), an elderly pooch whose loving, sweet-faced owner didn't wake up one day; and Lillie (Jackson again), a medal-winning show dog who got fed up with life in the ring.

As each older dog tells its story, another acts the part of human owner; they observe human foibles, talk and sing of "breathing in life" through their sensitive noses, of running for the joy of it, of knowing the touch of a loving human hand, of giving their hearts, because that's what dogs do. In the end, they sacrifice their own chance at a new life for Ozzie's sake.

Adams' character comes movingly back into the story at this point, very much a part of the seriocomic ending.

Most of Masi's and Platt's songs complement mood and character perfectly; especially moving are Millie's reminiscence of life with her owner--her morning biscuit, the smell of jasmine, the kind companionship--and the interweaving of the moments when the dogs hear the sound of human voices. Their eager, anxious rush to the fence of their enclosure, hoping for the "someone" who will rescue them is reflected in the music, as even aloof Lilly and tough Dumpster plead for someone to love and be loved by.

Robert Loftin's light choreography is pleasing but hampered by the shallow stage, especially in the last ensemble number, although Jackson manages a convincing Broadway strut in her solo. Costumes by Chris Burrows are just right, as is Whitney James' restrained make-up--no dog suits, no cartoon-like noses. Laura Spivey's light design is evocative but doesn't work well with the black and white comic strip-style projections that represent changing scenes. The images, which can add dramatic depth, are too often washed out by the light.

But for Dumpster's overly repetitive, kid-familiar mild vulgarities--we get the idea--the adult cast, all stage and screen professionals, avoids cuteness, as does the non-cloying script, and there is dimension enough all around to inspire tears, so bring tissues and if you're a dog lover, bring extra. By the end of a recent show with a mostly adult audience--it's aimed at ages 10 to 14 and their adults--the sniffles were audible.

BE THERE

"DogMusic," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Sundays, 12:30 p.m.; dark Oct. 18. Under age 18, $8; adults, $10. Benefit for Guide Dogs of America, Saturday, 8 p.m., $8 to $10; benefit for P.A.W.S./L.A., Oct. 10, 8 p.m. $16. Ends Dec. 20. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. (323) 851-7977.

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