By Elyse Sommer
When you first take your seat, the little red dog sits unobtrusively on a platform. It's only when the show begins that the scrawny runt, who it turns out has been unceremoniously dumped by his human family, is joined by the skinny red-headed teenager who accompanies him every step of his journey towards self-esteem and a loving home. This look-alike teaming of puppet with human alter ego applies to the many other pooch-people personalities we meet during the next two hours -- for example, a chic French poodle is paired with a sophisticated French mademoiselle and a fierce coyote teams up with a leather clad ruffian. It's a pairing that makes for a seamless integration between the actor puppeteers and their creations. It also adds enormously to the visual fun of the production.
Like the Brothers Grimm and Maurice Sendak, author Daniel Pennac is not afraid to tell a story that for all its whimsy has serious, at times scary, undertones. Doggie is the name given to the red runt by the bratty little girl (played with comic flair by Feike Looyen) who takes him home from the Paris dog pound. Since her name is an equally generic Girlie this seems a girl-finds-dog match made in heaven. But Girlie is fickle and begins to neglect Doggie and her parents disdain him. While in the end Girlie and her family become the loving and caring family Doggie longs for, he must first continue his adventures as a dog caught up in the dangers that face a dog (or boy) left on his own.
The dog pound scene, with Doggie and his various canine colleagues faced with death unless they're adopted is particularly poignant. Thanks to the canines' irrepressibly funny antics even in their most dire predicaments and the constantly changing, eye-boggling picture book sets and props, the serious elements of the story never get too scary. (I didn't hear one child crying!).
There are fourteen actors to play 60 two- and four-legged characters with panache. At the risk of playing favorites, I particularly liked the junkyard dog who paints like Picasso. To give the play its musical credentials, there's a two man band (Cornell Van Vuuren--guitar and banjo; Joost Belinfante--violin, percussions) playing some half dozen catchy and never too loud songs, including a delicious "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?".
This import from Rotterdam is indeed a one of a kind "tail". It proves that the runt of the litter can indeed be the best of the litter for families looking for enjoyable, affordable family entertainment.
My only regret after seeing this, the New Victory's last production of the season, is that Jack was too young to see Julie Taymor's now Broadway-priced The Green Bird during its New Victory premiere; also that we didn't get to see the complete lineup of 1999-2000 New Victory shows. But there's always next year which will be a case of the more the merrier since Jack's parents plan to join the fun with a family membership. A great idea, and, as anyone checking out membership details will discover, a super good deal.
For our review of the New Victory's spectacular first-of-the-season show, Shockheaded Peter, go here. For the New Victory Theater's news and membership information, check out their website: http://www. newvictory.org