Doggie Style

Get a puppy upper from A Dog's Life at Theatre Three; all's well with Kitchen Dog's world premiere of Sick

The dog days of Dallas theater are upon us. With A Dog's Life at Theatre Three, we have the sweetest musical comedy of the season. Up the street at Kitchen Dog Theater is the world premiere of Sick, one of the best new American plays to come this way in years. Both productions deserve big pats on the head for originality and top-dog performances.

A Dog's Life sounds ridiculous, and yet it works. Three actors portray pound pups desperate to be rescued before their expiration dates. The show begins with Jack, a big-hearted young mutt played by Gregory Lush, meeting his cellmates, feisty Little Dog (Megan Kelly Bates) and grumpy Big Dog (Marcus M. Mauldin). From their point of view, we hear how each dog has been abused or abandoned and how much he or she wants to find a good home. First they have to be plucked from the shelter. "Choose Me!" they sing, striking cute poses as prospective owners stroll by their cages in the opening scene.

Every dog has its day and its own big number in A Dog's Life, directed at Theatre Three by Bruce R. Coleman, who also designed the costumes to casually suggest rather than literally interpret dogginess. In Jack's first car ride with Joel (Cedric Neal), a single guy buying the pet as a gift for his girlfriend, the dog sings the metaphorical anthem "It All Goes by So Fast," noting the people and places whizzing past his open window. (It's the first hint that Jack might be loping off to doggie heaven before the evening is over, so be prepared.) Love songs to bacon, cheese and wasting time are part of the pleasant, though generic-sounding, score by writer-lyricist Sean Grennan and composer Leah Okimoto, collaborating on their second musical.

A howling good time is had by Joel (Cedric Neal) and his adorable pound puppy Jack (Gregory Lush) in Theatre Three's canine musical A Dog's Life.
Andy Hanson
A howling good time is had by Joel (Cedric Neal) and his adorable pound puppy Jack (Gregory Lush) in Theatre Three's canine musical A Dog's Life.

Details

A Dog's Life continues through June 22 at Theatre Three. Call 214-871-3300. Sick continues through June 28 at Kitchen Dog Theater. Call 214-953-1055.

The charm of A Dog's Life definitely doesn't sit, lie or roll over in its music. The tunes are so thin they might as well be played on a dog whistle; the lyrics can be awkward, and they drop a few too many references to poo. Among the 15 songs, there's not one soaring aria set in a junkyard à la Andrew Lloyd Webber's tiresome moggy opera. But what makes A Dog's Life such a fetching bit of theatrical kibble is its heart. The message is simple: Life's a whole lot better with a dog in it.

Cats got all heavy about the secret world that felines inhabit without a human in sight (thanks to the whimsical poems of T.S. Eliot that it's based on). A Dog's Life looks at the special relationship people have with their animals, and the unconditional devotion pet owners receive in return. "Affection without ambivalence," Freud called it. The show's dog characters are childlike—happy to be fed, played with, doted on, taken for rides and, on occasion, left alone to snooze on soft sofa cushions.

Joel, the lead human in the piece, becomes a reluctant master to Jack when the unseen girlfriend rejects them both. On the eve of being sent back to the pound, Jack turns up the cuteness factor enough to convince Joel to keep him, a life-changing decision for dog and man. Together they flourish, bonding over walks in the park, where Joel eventually meets another cute girl (played by Rhianna Mack). Funny how women notice when a guy is kind to four-footed friends.

Big Dog and Little Dog, meanwhile, end up in the same household, much to Big Dog's chagrin. Imagine a mastiff sharing a yard with a yappy terrier. As the years go by, they mellow, accepting each other's faults. "Smell me, know me, end of story," says Big Dog.

A second act song title tells the rest: "I Have to Go." Jack, after a good long life, is off to the celestial dog park. Bring out the tissues for Jack's last lilting duet with Joel. It had the woman who sat beside me heaving with audible sobs. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I had a Maltese."

Dogs are family for a lot of us, and A Dog's Life, despite its silly tunes and corny puns ("I feel like Shih Tzu," says the arthritic Little Dog), can unleash a lot of emotions. So, no need to apologize. It's nice to remember old friends. Jack, as a sort of "Everydog," serves as a symbol of every pet loved and lost.

It's also nice that the actor playing Jack is the dog's dinner, as the English would say. Scampering around the stage, wiggling his rear end and panting with his tongue hanging out, Gregory Lush is so adorable you'll want to take him home. Just a few months ago, Lush was hounding Eliza Doolittle as snooty Professor Henry Higgins in Theatre Three's Pygmalion. After that, he was the grungy love interest in The Goodbye Girl. In his third leading role this season, Lush leads the pack as one of Dallas' best young musical theater actors.

Cedric Neal, who can make any song in any musical a showstopper, blends his big voice just right with Lush's as Jack's owner Joel. As the supporting dogs, Bates and Mauldin are a dandy comic duo. A running joke has Bates' easily distracted Little Dog chasing her own tail over and over and over. It's a dumb bit, but Bates, a pug-nosed redhead, kills with it each and every time.

About once a season Theatre Three throws the audience a bone with something that looks and feels like a hit. This one qualifies because of the material, the talent and the stripped-down presentation. Instead of the usual cluttered mess of a set, the little theater-in-the-square at the Quadrangle has opened up its acting space for movement. Designer David Walsh has put just a few pieces of furniture on the floor and has decorated the walls with oversized paint-by-number style portraits of dogs (available for sale after the run, with proceeds going to the SPCA). Musical director Terry Dobson and his little trio are tucked away upstage. That gives the cast of canines plenty of room to romp.

A Dog's Life is poodles of fun.

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Not often does a script as brilliant as Zayd Dohrn's Sick get produced in a Dallas theater before it's been seen anywhere else. So catch it now, and you can say you saw it well before it won all the awards it's bound to once it gets to a New York stage. As the mainstage feature of Kitchen Dog's annual New Works Festival, Sick is a millennial Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—with less alcohol and more disinfectant.

In a home as sterile as an operating room, the family of a New York City college poetry prof lives in self-enforced isolation. Mom Maxine (Lisa Hassler) has turned germaphobe after 9/11, a day she describes as forcing all of lower Manhattan to inhale the infectious contents of two crumbling skyscrapers. In her spotless white scrubs and surgical mask, Maxine ritually sprays and wipes every surface. Her teenage children, Davey and Sarah (Lee Helms and Martha Harms), are allergic to the world, says Maxine. They've been homeschooled and, if Maxine has her way, they'll remain locked inside as fragile hothouse flowers for life.

Enter the dirty stranger, poetry grad student Jim (Lee Trull), brought home unexpectedly for dinner by Sidney (James Crawford), the sweating, cussing, filthy-minded professor/father. Sid's fed up with wife Maxine's madness. His introduction of Jim to virginal 19-year-old Sarah, who's also a talented poet with dreams of leaving home, leads to a confrontation with Maxine that's every bit as loud, stringently funny and darkly disturbing as Albee's George and Martha mayhem. "Married couples are so tedious," observes Maxine in front of the company. "It's like sharing one small, enfeebled, bisected brain." She describes her husband as "like Woody Allen...except not funny."

Sidney's breakdown, beautifully acted by Crawford, comes after a crisis that sends Davey into convulsions. "I enable this insect existence!" cries Sid.

Directed by Christopher Carlos, Sick is a stunning piece of theater, acted feverishly by the Kitchen Dog cast. Dohrn, currently a fellowship holder at Juilliard, said he was inspired to write the play while spending time in China after the SARS epidemic. He combined that experience with post-9/11 paranoia and still managed to make Sick a comedy that goes well beyond its obvious subject matter to explore the secrets that poison families from deep within.

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