Witty `Bark' is an absolute theatrical howl
By Chris Jones
Tribune arts critic
Published October 24, 2005
Around half way through the unusual new musical "Bark," wherein all the characters are pooches in a shelter, the bone suddenly drops.
The comic numbers ("I'm in Love With Lassie/She's the One Who's Classy") fall away. So do the gags about the sex life of Chihuahuas ("It just happens so fast". . .). And we get a succession of deadly serious ballads about the hopes, fears and regrets of a poodle, a Labrador retriever and an ugly mutt with a heart of canine gold.
It's at precisely that point you realize that the people behind "Bark," an anxious-to-please small musical from Los Angeles now in commercial engagement at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, aren't just writing yet another concept musical to fill their bowls with chow. Oh, no. Nor are they were using dogs as cute vestibules for adult character types-in the fashion, say, of "101 Dalmatians" or (dare one even hiss the word?) "Cats."
The show may have a light patina-- dogs rap, dogs sing opera, dogs salsa-- but it's as seriously intended as an emotional bite from a stressed out spaniel on the seat of its companion's pants.
This cabaret of the canine was written by, and for, those who can get seriously exercised over the emotional inner life of a German Shepherd.
There are many such people (I recall dating at least two). And denizens of dog beaches and Wiggly Field will immediate get the scent here of kindred spirits. This is a parade of the pooch's perspective, a singing advertisement for doggie adoption and unconditional canine love.
As word gets out, dog fanatics will be defending this show up and down the lake, pooper scooping any and all opposition.
Now I've visited the Humane Society on a Saturday morning and wondered what the dogs inside were thinking about. That level of sympathy is probably enough to stay somewhat engaged in, and amused by, this better-than-you-are-probably-expecting show for most of its two hours, in part because the pop tunes by David Troy Francis are diverse and easy on the ear and the book and lyrics (by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, mainly) are really quite witty. There are a lot of lines about dogs putting up with human failings ("I'm not crazy about you patting my head like you do/It kind of makes of my teeth rattle") and there's one very, very funny aspirational ballad from one of the orphan dogs about being adopted by a gay couple ("Steve and Steve") and functioning as a beloved high-end accessory in a comfortable, mercifully childless home.
The locally cast show (under Kay Cole's realistic direction, which has actors capturing the essence of dog without wandering around on all fours) has a decent sextet of actor-singers, albeit a group only partially gelled by the time of Friday night's opening in the CCPA's spiffy new basement theater.
For the most part, the acting is better than the singing. But that's not always the case. Best in show, overall, are the peppy Devin DeSantis, the puppy of the crowd, and the resonant Cory Goodrich, who plays Chanel, a poodle, 'natch.
You wish the show -- on its way to New York -- would take a few more stylistic risks, dial up the animal truths even more, and banish the remaining singing-dog cliches.
The conflict needs sharpening (pounds are great places for desperate souls). And it takes far, far too long for the show's tail to wag. But by the end, most minefields have been avoided, sincerity has been evoked, and there's considerable craft and heart to admire.
It also has to be noted there's a decent sector of the population who will find warbling pooches about as appealing as slobber at six in the morning from the girlfriend's dog.
But then the darn thing is called "Bark." Unlike a dog, you can self-select.
When: Open Run
Where: Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green St.
Running time: 2 Hours
Tickets: $35-$45 at 312-733-6000