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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

By Ariana Mufson
Bark! It's the only way to greet company. Bark! It's the very key to your sanity. When you're feeling hungry, when you're feeling blue. Bark! When you're happy to see me too
--- The Pack
"Dog haters need not apply." Such should be the caveat above the Coast Playhouse's marquee on Santa Monica Boulevard, where the world premiere of the musical Bark! has extended its run to February 27th.

It's easy to understand why. Bark! cleverly takes on the world from the dog's point of view. Unlike Andrew Lloyd Weber's Cats, which reveled in over-the-top spectacle during its long run on Broadway, this musical's charm springs from its understated presentation. Its only excess is unmitigated love and adoration for the dog.

When the actors take the stage it's hard not to smile-each has a compelling presence and there's not a weak singer in the appropriately labeled "Pack." What's more, they look so comfortable on stage that we accept them as dogs. No fancy make-up or costumes are needed for their actions to be believable. Though they walk on two legs, it's the small touches -- a growl here, or a loose wrist denoting a paw there -- that cause us to suspend disbelief and without trouble see the refined dog of pedigree or the rough and tumble mutt.

In addition to the costumes, the set's simplicity works well. Though the choreography sometimes felt static it matches the show's understated tone.

The first act is mainly lighter fare, with each actor playing various dogs. The music ranges from ballad to blues to salsa. "Ruff Ruff World" features Chester (a well cast Chad Borden) in a hilarious lament to a dog's loss of masculinity after a trip to the vet. Standouts also include "Il Cane Dell'Opera," impressively sung by Katherine Von Till, and Joe Souza, first in the eerie ballad "Terrier from Mars" and later as a silly Mexican Chihuahua "Senorita La Pepita Rosarita." When Souza sings "I bark and sometimes bite/ and if you do not like/ then you can kiss my derriere-o" in his affected Latino accent, the audience can't help but laugh. Not exactly T.S. Elliot, but cute and catchy nonetheless.

The second act opens with a fun "M-U-T-T" rap, but blends the upbeat moments with more somber odes; one by a mother dog who has lost her pups ("Pound Song"), and another from an older dog begging to be held one last time before death ("A Grassy Field"). Besides having superb voices, the actors are so invested in each moment it's hard for any pet owner to stay dry eyed as a mother dog mournfully sings "I saw them coming closer so I hid, I couldn't let them see that I had my pups with me. I didn't want to lose them God forbid..."

Composer David Troy Francis, knows how to tug emotions as well as make us smile. Moreover, the show's comic and emotional sensibility surely springs from Troy Francis' love of dogs. He occasionally overdoes the sentimentality ("you're my man, I'm your pet, we're as close as friends can get"), but the writing and performances are compelling enough to make us want to run out and hug a canine friend.

Even if you don't subscribe to Dog Fancy or know that the "shih-tzu" is a dog breed, all you really need to appreciate the show is a sense of humor and a love of animals. But if you wince when a friend pulls out snapshots of their favorite canine before pictures of the kids, then Bark! might not be the musical for you. Still it's refreshing to see a musical that relies on talent rather than spectacle, and Bark! does just that. The show was scheduled to end January 16th but the extension enabled us to catch it and recommend it for a night at the theater that's doggone delightful.

Director and Choreographer: Kay Cole
Musical Director, Composer, and Conductor: David Troy Francis
Lyricists: Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, Robert Schrock, Jonathan Heath, Danny Lukic, and Mark Winkler
Cast: Chad Borden, Joshua Finkel, Lauri Johnson, Ginny McMath, Joe Souza, Katherine Von Till
Set Design: Dennis Kull
Lighting Design: Steven Young
Costume Design: Anthony Garcia and Barbara Lempel
Casting Director: Michael Donovan
Graphic Design: Jeff Judd
Running Time: Two hours with a fifteen minute intermission.
Originally scheduled to end 1/16/05 -- extended to 2/27/05
Where: The Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.
Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm. $40 for all performances.
For more information:
Reviewed by Ariana Mufson on January 14, 2005.
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