September 22, 2004
Julio Martinez, STAFF

Coast Playhouse, West Hollywood, 99 seats;

Chester - Robert Alan ClinkMolly - Lauri JohnsonBoo - Ginny
McMathCharlie - Joe SouzaJoshua Finkel - BenChanel - Katherine Von Till

This tuner journey through the social mores of "man's best friend" certainly takes a different approach than the thematically ponderous Broadway hit, "Cats." Utilizing the clever scripter efforts of Robert Schrock and Gavin Dillard (with additional lyrics by Jonathan Heath, Danny Lukic and Mark Winkler), composer David Troy Francis has fashioned over two dozen musical vignettes, highlighting the joys and sorrows of six contented canines that all hang out at the same Doggie Daycare Center. Eschewing a plot, each number stands on its own. Displaying an eclectic range of musical stylings, there is enough variation in this collaboration to keep the proceedings always entertaining and at times, downright inspiring. Helmer-choreographer Kay Cole offers just enough guidance to spotlight the near-virtuosi efforts of a stellar six-member ensemble.

Each of the doggies exhibits an infectious individualism that is played out on Dennis Kull's colorful, cartoon-like setting. Youthfully rambunctious and barely housetrained Charlie (Joe Souza) extols the joys of "Doggie Daycare" because it offers him the freedom to be constantly "Whizzing on Stuff."

The older, more laid-back Chester (Robert Alan Clink) admits to being infatuated with a movie star ("I'm in Love With Lassie") but laments the visit to the vet that now renders him unable to act upon his desires ("Ruff Ruff World"). Deeply introspective Ben (Joshua Finkel) explains the dreams that cause dogs to go through such twitching gyrations when they sleep ("Terrier From Mars").

The lady tail waggers are even more infectious than their male counterparts. Boo (Ginny McMath) is a happy-go-lucky slave to her urges ("Sock-a-Holic"), who can't resist reacting to any outside noise as a possible invasion of her household ("Guarding Missy"). Lauri Johnson is perfect as grumpy, aged house pet Molly, who lets her dissatisfaction with the two-legged creatures around her be known ("Hey You!"), followed by a power-lunged, soaring lament to the loss of a pal ("Howling Just to Scare Away the Blues").

The vocal highlight of the show is turned in by Katherine Von Till as the aristocratic poodle Chanel. Von Till's adroit coloratura chops just sail through Chanel's operatic ode to spending the morning listening to the classical station with her mistress ("Il Cane Dell' Opera"). Later, she takes the lead vocal in composer Francis' highly inventive "Siren Symphony."

Kay Cole (one of the original cast members of "A Chorus Line") wisely shapes the dance moves to complement the personalities of her doggy troupe. She still manages to work in a soft shoe (soft paw?) routine for Boo and Charlie as they luxuriate in the wonders of "Fooooood," an inventive swing routine for Ben and Molly ("At the Park"), and some gentle hip- hop moves for the guys as they back up Chester's funky appreciation at not having a pedigree ("M-U-T-T RAP").

Cole even manages to throw in some salsa as Ben does his Chihuahua turn ("Senorita La Pepita Rosarita"). The most endearing bit of staging comes when the animals entwine themselves around each for comfort and protection as Charlie reconciles himself to the fact that he is dying ("A Grassy Field").

The rich-sounding vocals of this doggy sextet are not always complemented by the "digital orchestra" of musical conductor Chris Lavely (synthesizer), Steven Jones (keyboards) and Matt Mayhall (percussion). A little less electronic and a lot more acoustic would have done greater justice to the onstage talent. The sound design reinforcement of Von Clay could not always keep the voices from being overpowered.

"Bark!" offers a tuneful, totally unassuming look at canine life that could prove to have successful legs at the small and mid-size theater level. But it is hard to imagine this show achieving the same success without the all-star caliber of performers now gracing the stage of the Coast Playhouse.

Sets, Dennis Kull; lights, Steven Young; sound, Von Clay; costumes, Anthony Garcia, Barbara Lempel. Opened Sept. 17, reviewed, Sept. 19; runs until Oct. 24. Running time: 2 HOURS.


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