The new TheaterWorksUSA show Dog Man: The Musical is based on a graphic novel by Dav Pilkey, who is perhaps best known as the creator of the Captain Underpants book series. The Dog Man books follow the derring-do adventures of the title character, who came to be when the head of an injured police dog was sewn onto the body of an injured police officer. The resulting hybrid, Dog Man (Brian Owen), supposedly possesses the best assets of both species. In fact, he’s a superhero (or, as Pilkey would put it, “a supa hero”). According to lyricist Kevin Del Aguila and composer Brad Alexander in the show’s title song, “He’s such a perfect blend! / As dog and man, he’s his own best friend!” Yes, sometimes his canine instincts clash with his human responsibilities, but nobody’s perfect.
The story is framed with a strictly human narrative about a couple of kids, George Beard (Forest VanDyke) and Harold Hutchens (Dan Rosales), who happen to be Pilkey’s bifurcated alter ego. They’re irreverent and rambunctious boys, who’ve been kicked off a school production of Annie but who decide it might be good to add a musical-theater iteration to their Dog Man franchise. In Harold’s treehouse, the boys sketch out the action of their dream musical; they’re interrupted now and again by Harold’s mother, who calls to them to come down from the tree for some lunch. We see the boys’ vision come to life as they plot the story. It’s rather sophisticated dramaturgy for audiences composed largely of six and seven-year-olds, what with the framing device and some touches of “meta” comedy. But the kids at the performance under review took to it like seasoned theatergoers.
The plot of the Dog Man story adapted here, 2017’s “A Tale of Two Kitties,” involves the dastardly deeds of Dog Man’s customary nemesis, a cat named Petey (Jamie LaVerdiere), who, we see, was the very cat who set off the bomb that led to the head transplant that gave the world Dog Man. In this story, Petey orders a cloning machine in order to duplicate himself, but he fails to remember that a fully grown bad cat won’t instantly materialize. Instead, he gets Li’l Petey (L.R. Davidson), a sweet and lovable kitten whose guilelessness sidetracks the nefarious plans of “Papa.” As if Petey’s shenanigans weren’t enough local chaos for Dog Man to cope with, a souped-up psychokinetic pet fish (and sometime disco diva) named Flippy (Crystal Sha’nae) is causing whole buildings to come to life across town, wreaking havoc.
Kids may love this show—and the Dog Man books themselves—largely because the outlandish situations are similar to scenarios in their own hyper-imaginative make-believe play. Except that, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, young audiences see a fully realized version of such fantasies, with vibrant production values plus some catchy tunes. Tim Mackabee’s cartoonish unit set—Harold and George’s treehouse—is quiet at first but is soon swarming with marauding buildings, a wacky robot and other assorted craziness. Heidi Leigh Hanson’s costumes are bright and cleverly imagined. David Lander’s lighting design helps us imagine lightning storms, bomb explosions and what amounts to a municipal volcano. Director/choreographer Jen Wineman keeps everything moving along at a quick clip.
The songs are sung to a recorded soundtrack. As always, such practice induces a sort of uniformity in musical performance, without much room for anything improvisational. But this is not a big problem here. The best number (“The Evil ABC’s”) finds Petey trying vainly to teach Li’l Petey to grow up to be a bad cat (“’A’ is for ‘annihilation’…”). Don’t worry, parents: villainy is quashed in the end. On the other hand, you may not be thrilled about the show’s doo-doo and pee-pee jokes, which occur with some frequency—to the young ’uns’ chortling delight.
The players all do a fine job. Owen—who barks, yips and howls his spoken lines and lyrics—makes Dog Man a big galumphing sweetheart. Children at the performance under review seemed particularly enamored of Davidson’s winsome Li’l Petey. Adults, on the other hand, may take more of a shine to LaVerdiere’s scrumptiously villainous big Petey, who is funniest precisely when his attempts at being suave and cool falter—just as with actual felines that scramble to save face after not landing gracefully on all four feet.
Dog Man: The Musical (extended through August 11, 2019)
TheaterWorksUSA in special arrangement with The Lucille Lortel Foundation
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or call http://www.twusa.org/DogMan
Running time: 90 minutes including one intermission