'Dogpark: The Musical'

In "Dogpark: The Musical," it's a bright, sunny morning somewhere in Seattle and Daisy, a sassy Westie terrier, reluctantly agrees to visit the local dog park, "Central Bark," one more time. Her owner has signed up for a singles-with-pets program, Lovers With Leashes, so maybe both of them will find romance. At least, that's the plan.

"Dogpark: The Musical," is the new production at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre. Written by Ashland writers Jahnna Beecham, Malcolm Hillgartner and Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Michael J. Hume, with music by Hillgartner and directed by Beecham, it is a charming, endearing mixed-breed love story. Boy meets girl, boy thinks he has lost girl, boy and girl overcome adversity and reunite. Only, in this case, the boy and the girl are dogs.

At the dog park, Daisy (Jillian Van Niel) meets up with a pack of admirers, eager to greet her in typical dog-like ways, as she comes through the gate. There is Champ (Kyle Smith), a conceited purebred Collie. He has appeared in several commercials and currently has an audition for a "Lassie" remake. There is Itchy (Chris Carwithen), a neurotic, insecure Jack Russell terrier with many allergies. And there is the brooding, Lab-mix mutt, Bogie (Scott Fuss), who seems to own the park but have no owner.

Their story is told through clever, sort of '40s music — everything from hot jazz, torchy ballads and a bit of doo-wop. The dialogue and songs are filled with dog-referenced lyrics as the characters act out familiar doggy behavior. Daisy is secretly ashamed of her chronic skin condition and occasional hair loss. Itchy complains about his overly fastidious owners who dress him in argyle sweaters and bizarre cutesy costumes. As a "television personality," the arrogant Champ would like to be top dog but he's no match for the alpha (and secretly vulnerable) Bogie. There are some cute bit parts for the guys in elaborate wigs and doggy apparel in a number about speed-mating and backup singers called the Purse Dogs, clever furry hand puppets who intermittently pop up to comment on the forlorn Daisy's bad luck in doggy romance.

Beecham, Hillgartner and Hume have even added a scene filled with as many of Shakespeare's dog quotes they can find. The script is also filled with classy groaners like "to err is human, to forgive, canine," or "if you lie down with dogs, you wake up with dogs." Or, my favorite, "The trouble with obedience school is that you learn all this stuff you'll never use in the real world." Not to mention shameless homages to old movies such as "Casablanca" and "An Affair to Remember."

When Act I ends with Bogie revealing that he was left at the dog park six months before and can't leave because he is still waiting his owner's return, there was an audible gasp through the opening night audience—admittedly a dog-centric one, since it was a benefit for Friends of the Animal Shelter — and, probably, not a dry eye in the house.

Of course, Act II ends happily but not before a breathless standoff with Animal Control and the heartbreaking revelation that Bogie's owner won't come back for him.

There is a wonderful sense of fun about "Dogpark: The Musical." Van Niel, Smith, Fuss and Carwithen admirably never forget that they are people playing dogs and are not actually portraying dogs. Kerri Lea Robbins emphasizes this with her clever costumes that are evocative but decidedly not variations of dog suits.

Cabaret veteran Suzanne Seiber provides the choreography, with nods to everyone from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire to Bob Fosse.

The crisp musical direction is by Hillgartner, using a recorded soundtrack of a band billed as Les Chiens Chauds de Paris with Dennis Freese on clarinet and baritone sax, Bruce McKern on bass, Tom Freeman on drums and percussion, and Hillgartner on guitar and bandoleon.

"Dogpark: The Musical" was written at the request of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin. Milwaukee had previously produced the authors' "They Came From Way Out There" and "Chaps!," which were also produced at the Cabaret. Hume came up with the concept, inspired by the trio's own dogs, and he, Beecham and Hillgartner riffed on it from there. They were clever enough to make the show entertaining for everyone, animal lovers or not.

Why is "Dogpark: The Musical" set in Seattle? According to the opening night post-show "Bark Back," provided by writers and cast as part of the benefit performance, it all goes back to Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr and the Empire State Building in "An Affair to Remember." "But we wanted our show to be set in the Northwest."

"Dogpark: The Musical" runs at the Cabaret through May 26 with performances Thursday through Monday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Dinner is available at 6:30 p.m. for evening performances and brunch at matinees. Reservations are required. Appetizers, beverages and desserts are available for service during intermission at all performances. During the run, the Cabaret is featuring at each table photos of dogs available for adoption from the Jackson County shelter.

For further information, contact the Cabaret box office by phone at 541-488-2902 or online at www.oregoncabaret.com.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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