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An itch for fun gets scratched at 'Bark!'

September 24, 2004|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

Concepts don't get much broader or simpler than the one behind "Bark!" the world premiere musical now at the Coast Playhouse. In short, the show is sung entirely by dogs. Of course, humans play the dogs, but the loosely connected songs are performed entirely from a doggie's point of view. It all sounds cutesy in the extreme, and indeed, an early number, "Whizzing on Stuff," skews toward our lowest expectations. However, don't judge this "Bark!" by its cover.

Composer and musical director David Troy Francis' score, tunefully rendered here by a live "digital orchestra" under the direction of conductor Chris Lavely, is a richly varied stew of blues, salsa, country and straight torch songs. There are even echoes of "A Chorus Line," most notably in the rousing opener "Bark!"

The lyrics by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard and Robert Schrock (with additional lyrics by Mark Winkler, Jonathan Heath and Danny Lukic) are also richly varied. A Snoopy-like flight of fancy about space exploration, "Terrier From Mars" (performed by Joshua Finkel, superbly filling in for Robert Mammana) may seem initially insubstantial -- until we realize that the dog, chained in a barren backyard, is using fantasies of space as a distraction from his miserable confinement. In "A Grassy Field," beautifully sung by Joe Souza, an elderly dog says goodbye to its master before being put down -- a simple elegy with an emotionally stunning punch.

Some of this material is very serious indeed. Most of the show, however, is howlingly funny. Director and choreographer Kay Cole has left no bone unturned in her practically perfect staging. Show-stoppers include Katherine Von Till's virtuosic turn as an operatic pooch and a sizzling blues riff by Lauri Johnson. Ginny McMath and Robert Alan Clink also have ample opportunities to shine -- McMath as a yappy dog fiercely protecting her mistress from imagined intruders, Clink as an Elvis-like hound bemoaning his recent neutering.

A paean to simplicity, loyalty, unconditional love and all other attributes doglike, "Bark!" resonates -- whether you're a dog lover or not. Family-friendly and energetic, these dogs seem headed on a long, long run.



Where: Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 24

Price: $35

Contact: (800) 595-4849

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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