December 23, 2004
Don Shirley, Times Staff Writer

A canine chorus unleashed

"Bark!" is a musical homage to dogs and their endearingly "human hearts."

Is the new musical "Bark!" a would-be "Cats" about dogs?

Bite your tongue.

"I did not want 'Cats' — animals with dog faces and big ears and tails," director/choreographer Kay Cole says of the comedy at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood. "Dogs may be furry, but they have human hearts."

In fact, as the actors in "Bark!" sing about life from a dog's point of view, the only canine-related paraphernalia they wear are collars, and they're seldom on all fours. Cole wanted "Bark!" to present "the essence of dog," not a representational imitation.

Instead, the model for "Bark!" is "A Chorus Line," says creator and composer David Troy Francis. Whereas he once left a performance of "Cats" at intermission because he couldn't understand the lyrics, he says some of the lyrics for "A Chorus Line" were "life-changing."

The 1975 megahit about a lineup of Broadway gypsies auditioning for the same chorus line also played a big role in Cole's life. As a young actress, she created the role of Maggie in "A Chorus Line." (The show's song "At the Ballet" was based in part on her own experiences.)

The parallels go only so far, however. Though "Bark!" surveys a chorus line of pooches who hang out at Doggie Daycare, they're not yet competing for anything in particular. But "Bark!," which already has a somewhat complicated history, is evolving, with a new edition expected to open in late January.

As it is, "Bark!" has garnered yaps of approval from audiences and most of the critics since it opened in September.

The show grew from four songs that Francis, who is primarily a classical pianist, wrote for a 15-minute film called "Dogs." Francis asked Robert Schrock — who's probably best known for his "Naked Boys Singing" revue — to write lyrics for additional songs and direct the show that would become "Bark!"

Schrock staged a well-received workshop in 2003 at the Celebration Theatre but withdrew from the project last summer. Schrock "didn't want to do anything other than a revue," Francis says. Francis, who is also the co-producer, wanted more of a story.

According to Schrock, "I was emulating Stephen Sondheim. I wanted a sophisticated revue. He was emulating Frank Wildhorn," the "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Scarlet Pimpernel" composer whose pop-driven shows are heavily plotted.

The producers had already paid $42,000 (out of a $72,000 budget) to open at the Coast in September, Francis says. Choreographer Cole took over the directing duties as well, and the show opened as scheduled — with lyrics credited to five men. Almost half of the words were written by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, and about 35% are Schrock's, Francis says.

Francis and Dillard are continuing to work. The original revue contained 51 dog characters, but that number is down to nine, and by the time the new version of the show is ready, each of the six actors will play one dog from beginning to end.

"We'll try to redefine each dog so each one has a clear arc through the piece," Cole says.

The new "Bark!" also will sound different, with the three-piece band switching from digital to acoustic instruments. The actors will be paid more, because they'll be employed on an Actors' Equity contract.

The performers are all current or former dog owners, although that's not a requirement, Cole says. One of them, Joe Souza, has a day job as a dog walker.


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