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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Tony Cookson's new musical Mutt House at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is stuffed near-to-bursting with good intentions. Who can't get behind the tale of a bullied misfit who fights City Hall, champions a bunch of imperiled stray dogs and gets the girl of his dreams along the way?
The themes are clear, positive, and pushed by every character who takes the stage &emdash; four legged or otherwise. We are urged to be ourselves, fight the good fight and rescue a shelter dog thereby saving our own lives as well as someone else's. Yes, a vehicle this benevolent is designed to wag its tail and lick its audience full in the face.
Unfortunately, the triteness and simplicity of Cookson's book puts a serious dent into any good will that director Ryan Bergmann and his mostly-hard working cast are able to muster. The six performers playing the pooches are appealing and delightfully costumed by Allison Dillard, but even they wear out their welcome. Instead of trying to preach to adults and misfit kids everywhere, the two-hour Mutt House should have shed 45 minutes and become a one-act family show with proceeds partially benefiting animal rescue.
Our hero is Eddie Corbin (played by Ryan McCartan), AKA Weird Eddie, AKA the Dog Whisperer. Ed's a good-hearted fellow in his 20s who was bullied throughout his childhood (including by his father), lost his mother when he was 10, and has spent the last six years working at a run-down animal shelter where he also lives. Somewhere along the line, Eddie developed the ability to talk to and understand not just the shelter animals he tends, but all creatures. This might be a useful, exploitable skill, right (Just ask Dr. Doolittle)? But the best it can do for Eddie is enable him to spend his days avoiding human contact with a bunch of dogs. Granted, they adore Eddie who meets their every need, promises they will find homes and even makes their having to face death seem not so awful.
All is well in canine-land.Until it isn't.
The city's cartoon witch of a mayor (Heather Olt) is planning to line her pockets on the development of the city's waterfront, which calls for the shuttering of many buildings including the shelter. Sent to deliver the bad news and collect the paperwork is Hannah Matthews (Claire Adams), conflicted daughter of a powerful senator and, coincidentally, the girl who used to be nice to Eddie in junior high before she joined in the mass taunting. Now Hannah is grown up, as gentle as Eddie and, wouldn't you know it, deathly afraid of dogs. Fortunately, Eddie can help her out with that last bit while the hormone-sensitive dogs, who have spent years listening to Eddie's pining/bitterness over Hannah, can help advance the course of true love, of the two-legged variety.
The pooches also have their own stuff going on. Some sort of a flea bath has altered mutt Donna's (Amanda Leigh Jerry's) odor, causing topdog Digger (Ben Palacios) to lose interest in her. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Sophie (Valerie Laresen) a princess-y show poodle who speaks like a Beverly Hills fashionista and smells just fine to Digger. Mutt House's treatment of doggie sex is likely done to play to the younger set. All the same, it's often laughable ("Uh, Digger, it's been a long time since you sniffed me.").
The menagerie also includes Bradley (Garrett Marshall), a pit bull rescued from a fighting ring; Pepe (Gabriel Conzalez), a chihuahua who leads a second act calypso number, and Max (Max Wilcox), a plump corgi who loves nothing better in life than to have his belly scratched.
Mutt House contains 18 songs, credited to four different composers. Bouncy ensemble pieces that have the pooches tromping and romping across the stage to Janet Roston's sprightly dance step, dominate. The rest include mawkish ballad-y goo for Hannah and/or Eddie, and a full gusto second act climax, the “scratch me" number "I'm Lying Here."
These dogs aren't deep, but they're not short on charisma, particularly Palacios. His Digger is a fun-loving alpha male whose cockiness is muted by a surfer dude's drawl. Larsen moves from a one-scene appearance as an aging bloodhound to the prissy charm of Sophie. In addition to protruding ears, tails and makeup some of which wouldn't be out of place in Cats, costume, hair and wig designer Allison Dillard garbs the beasts in a series of coats, wraps and accessories that make them all (Sophie excepted) look a bit like homeless people. The costumes make for an appealing and effective look across the board and are the show's most, er “fetching" feature.
McCartan is suitably heroic, though it's a little tough to swallow that a good-looking guy like this was once a persecuted misfit. Olt camps it up gleefully and is clearly having a high old time with her monster of mayor. Her best line, uttered in an exit that would have made Cruella De Vil proud: "By the way, I hate dogs." Mutt House, of course, does not, but it could do better by its people.
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Created and book by Tony Cookson
Music and lyrics by John Daniel, Tony Cookson, Robb Curtis Brown and David O
Directed by Ryan Bergmann
Cast: Claire Adams, Gabe Gonzalez, Boise Holmes, Amada Leigh Jerry, Valerie Larsen, Garrett Marshall, Ryan McCartan, Heather Olt, Ben Palacios and Max Wilcox
Scenic Designer: Stephen Gifford
Lighting Designer: Matthew Brian Denman
Costume Designer: Allison Dillard
Sound Design: Cricket S. Myers
Props Designer: Michael O’Hara
Hair/Make-up Designer: Allison Dillard
Orchestrations: David O
Casting Director: Michael Donovan Casting
Stage Manager: Mercedes L. Clanton
Music Director: Anthony Lucca
Choreographer: Janet Roston
Plays through Aug. 5, 2018 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (213) 628-2772, www.MutthouseTheMusical.com
Running time: Two hours with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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