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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

F3Stage Review: Dog Man: The Musical is silly, spirited family fun

Film Flam Flummox

Dog Man: The Musical is a project that would be easy to dismiss out of hand. A stage musical adaptation of Dav Pilkey's enormously popular children's book series, it is all too easy to write off as a crass IP cash grab -- and, if only glancing at images of TheatreWorksUSA's touring production, the fairly modest production values would appear to reinforce that notion. But as with many things, context is key, and simplicity is not only by design, but also why the show works as well as it does: it is, quite simply, fun.

That simplicity manifests right upon entrance into the theatre, with the set by scenic designer Timothy R. Mackabee. A cardboard-heavy approximation of the interior of a treehouse, it sets the stage (puns not intended) for not only the overall do-it-yourself vibe of the aesthetic, but also squarely within the mindset and perspective of its main characters: fifth graders George (Marcus Phillips, coming straight off his impressive work in East West Players' powerful production of Spring Awakening) and Harold (Max Torrez). In addition to being best friends, they are also creative partners, having written and drawn the ongoing comic book exploitss of superhero Captain Underpants (itself a successful book and multimedia franchise by Pilkey) and, yes, the titular canine-human hybrid cop, Dog Man. The premise of the adaptation by librettist/lyricist Kevin Del Aguila and composer Brad Alexander is at once inspired and, yes, simple. George and Harold decide to take their art to the next step by turning one of their Dog Man adventures, A Tale of Two Kitties, into a musical.

That is, in fact, the name of one of Pilkey's actual books, and Dog Man: The Musical follows its original plotline to the letter. After a brief recap of the character's origin (accident leaves a cop and his K-9 partner to be merged into one literally dog-headed man after an experimental lives-saving surgery -- just go with it), Dog Man (Brian Owen) must protect the city from evil cat Petey's (Bryan Daniel Porter) latest scheme, which involves him creating a clone of himself (L.R. Davidson); but in addition to these two kitties is another looming threat, that of nefarious fish Flippy (Chadaé Nichol).

Yes, it's all very silly, but quite willfully so -- more than simply being primarily targeted at theatergoers around the same age as George and Harold, Del Aguila, Alexander, and director/choreographer Jen Wineman quite vividly place theatergoers of all ages into that boundless, anything goes space of tween-age imagination. The "cheap"-looking DIY aesthetic from the makeshift set pieces, props, costumes (by Heidi Leigh Hanson), and masks is very much in line with what a show put on my 10-year-olds would actually look like. But, more importantly, Dog Man: The Musical is in line with what such a show would feel like, and that's to the massive credit of the energy and exuberance of the gifted and crazily hard working cast of six. They seamlessly shuffle between their primary characters and places in the ensemble, always tirelessly giving their all to their comedic characterizations, Wineman's inventive choreography, and Del Aguila and Alexander's tuneful songs. It is in the latter where it is the adults in the audience will have a something a bit more savor than the kids, with the meta conceit allowing Del Aguila to add witty, knowing references to musical theater to go along with the broader gags.

But one does not need to be grown up to appreciate the infectiously catchy score, and chances are people of all ages, Dog Man fan or newcomer, walking out of theater after its brisk 90-minute runtime will do so singing -- either in their heads or aloud -- the earworm that is the anthemic "Dog Man" theme song. Dog Man: The Musical may ultimately be "just" a breezy family entertainer, but that it feels so effortless is a testament to the substantial talent, thought, and craft that brought it to theatrical life.

TheatreWorks USA's production of Dog Man: The Musical is now running at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through Sunday, January 7; the tour will then continue to various cities across North America through 2024.

Chadaé Nichol, L.R. Davidson, Brian Owen,
Bryan Daniel Porter, Marcus Phillips, and Max Torrez in
TheatreWorks USA's production of Dog Man: The Musical
(photo by Craig Schwartz Photography)

(Special thanks to Center Theatre Group)

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