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Doggie Style

Arizona Onstage's 'Bark!' sends theater-goers home wagging their tails

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Bark! is a recent show with music by David Troy Francis, words by a lot of other guys and performances by six singer-actors assuming the roles of dogs. Kevin Johnson's Arizona Onstage Productions always takes big chances with its material, and on every opening night, Johnson wonders if this will be the show that bites him in the ass.

Despite all the dogs on stage, this isn't it.

Bark! doesn't sniff around the dark corners that most of Johnson's productions--including the comedies--do, and it's way too slight a show to be as life-changing, gut-wrenching or merely thought-provoking as most Arizona Onstage fare. Yet the writing is sufficiently clever and the production sufficiently polished that it's pleasing entertainment you shouldn't be embarrassed to admit you've enjoyed ... even though you spend an hour and a half watching six grown men and women singing about chewing socks, peeing and discovering the benefits of being neutered.

There's no real storyline holding Bark! together; it's basically a pack of songs in which dogs express their interests and desires. Each song takes a different style, from torch to operetta to country to rap, and usually (but not always), the style ties in nicely with the subject of the lyrics. The country bit, for instance, is a trio for "filthy old flea bags," while macho mutts boast about their superiority in the rap routine.

Initially, it seems that we'll be following the same six dogs through the course of the show, and director Johnson and his cast work assiduously to create specific, individualized characters. But through no fault of the local team, the concept ultimately breaks down; the ever-versatile and charismatic Marcus Terrell Smith, for example, at various points is a sad terrier with a rich fantasy life, a preacher-dog spreading the gospel of ball-lessness and the aforementioned rapper-mutt.

The integrity as well as the limitation of Bark! is that the lyrics all revolve explicitly around canine interests--the best ways to be petted, devotion to their humans, loneliness under specific circumstances, howling with midnight sirens (an especially lovely sequence). Sure, the dogs are being anthropomorphized, but they're always, at heart, dogs. So while we humans can easily empathize with their topics, the lyrics are, word for word, doggie-centric and can't function outside of the context of the show (as opposed, god help us, to "Memory" from Cats). So what Bark! delivers is a series of novelty songs, and after a while, the novelty does wear thin.

Still, rare is the Arizona Onstage production that doesn't have at least a couple of moments that leave a quivering little cavity where your heart's supposed to be, and even Bark! can choke us up at least three times. The first is Smith's "Terrier From Mars" number, in which he spins out elaborate and funny fantasies to compensate for his neglect at the end of a chain in the backyard.

Even more affecting are two songs late in the show. One is set at the pound, where a mother (Stephanie Sikes) has been separated from her pups, and a male (Kit Runge) pines for his dead master. The other again features Runge, this time as an old dog hoping for a few last gestures of affection as he dies. OK, so the very idea is manipulative, but Francis and his lyricists handle it with taste, and Runge proves once more, as he did last November in Elegies, to be a master of subtle, tender emotional modulation.

Francis is a canny enough composer to hint early on that the show won't end up being all tail-wagging and Frisbee-chasing. In the first half, Sikes has a vocally tricky number in which she, a prissy French poodle, recounts her Saturday afternoons listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts with her gay owner. Sikes has to do the usual showbiz stuff here, as well as sing a few classical snatches as well. At one point, the lyricist has her going on about Wagner, but what Sikes and Francis actually allude to musically is one of Richard Strauss' achingly beautiful Four Last Songs, an intimation of mortality for those who know the music.

Yet Francis apparently intends Bark! to end with a reprise of its upbeat title number, a huge mistake after the death scene with Runge's character. So Johnson has taken it upon himself to move something more appropriate into the final position: "Life Should Be Simple" may not be as resignedly anthemic as "Make Our Garden Grow" at the end of Candide, but it has the same effect, and it's a smart choice typical of Johnson's theater sense.

The rest of the cast--Shayna Vercillio, Liz Cracchiolo and the irrepressible Jody Mullen--is just as fine as those already mentioned, and they all work very comfortably together. David Craig's three-piece instrumental ensemble, stationed behind a chain-link fence, provides a remarkably rich backing. The simple set, props and costumes (nobody's in a shaggy-dog get-up) are all the more appropriate for avoiding glitz and glamour. The lighting didn't always work on cue on opening night, but that's sure to improve.

What's most pleasing about Bark! is that so many things that could go wrong, don't. Portions are perhaps excessively cute, but not so cute that the show should be retitled Barf! And the few serious moments are not too intense for most youngsters. I suppose that's how you might describe a good day at the dog park.

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