Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009

DOGPARK with the Rep Cabaret

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Opening night of DOGPARK: The Musical appeared to be sold-out. The relatively small cabaret space was packed for the first ever non-preview performance of the new cabaret show by Jahnna Beecham, Malcom Hillgartner and Michael J. Hume—the creative team behind the Rep Cabaret’s well-received 2005 production of Chaps!

Susannah M Barnes’ set features a distant, stylized vision of the Seattle skyline in the far background. In the foreground were all the distinctive features of a dog-friendly park with fences and chew toys and things. Barnes cleverly tackles the difficulties of bringing the wide-open depth of a park to the rather thin width of the stage at the cabaret by placing foreground set elements in all the right places contrasting against a very distant-looking skyline.

The three actors begin the show in singing silhouette. After a few moments, stage lights come to reveal the three actors dressed as dogs with some pretty classy costuming effects by Holly Payne. Chip DuFord plays Bogie—an alpha dog modeled after the kind of timeless style of his namesake with scruffy ears coming out of a beaten-up fedora. He’s dressed in a furry, well worn-suit. DuFord carries the role with a style somewhere between Elvis, Bogart and Johnny Cash. Lenny Banovez plays a vain, show dog named Champ. The hair and make-up make Banovez unmistakable as an attractive male collie. The script gives Banovez some really clever opportunities to amplify the comically self-centered actor stereotype as played through the persona of a dog. Jonathan Spivey plays a neurotic Jack Russell Terrier named Itchy. A New York-based actor trained in Second City, Spivey makes an enjoyably comic Rep debut as an amplification of neurosis whose owner insists on trying to make him look cute in ways that only make things worse for him. Spivey performs for much of the show as a man dressed as a dog dressed as a bee. (Weird.) Katherine Strohmaier plays to the center of the story as a reluctant visitor to the park named Daisy. Her costume seems to be modeled after a poodle, but the character is far more charming than any poodle. As she is something of a newcomer to the park, we see it through her eyes. She shrugs off advances by the three males, all of whom are charming in their own ways.

The songs featured in the production are drawn from generous mix of musical styles shrewdly placed in the story. The dashing Champ tangos with Daisy to a salsa-styled song entitled, “Best In Show.” Then she’s empathizing with Itchy to, “Itchy’s Lament,” a song with a crazy kind of Klezmer feel to it. One of the funniest bits in the production features Spivey and Banovez performing a hand puppet singing trio of purse dogs. A pug, a Chihuahua and a Shi Tzu pop up in unexpected places to sing in unison on a few different occasions. With the slightly more exaggerated direction, the comic effect of this could have been amplified. Aside from this and a few other minor details that could’ve been improved on, Dogpark is a fun evening at the cabaret with a lightly comic show that doesn’t ask for too much of its audience. The charm of anthropomorphized dogs never really has a chance to get stale in a performance that rushes briskly across the stage without appearing anxious or confused.

On a final note, my wife has been to plenty of cabaret shows with me and seems convinced that a full-cast cabaret show just isn’t a full-cast cabaret show without cross-dressing. The only shows such at the Stackner that haven’t featured cross-dressing that I can remember featured all-female casts . . . In the interest of allaying any concerns here, I’ll reveal that there IS cross dressing in DOGPARK, but in the interest of keeping some level of suspense about it, I won’t reveal which of the three guys is involved or when . . .

The Milwaukee Rep’s
DOGPARK: The Musical runs January 9 – March 1st at the Stackner Cabaret.

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