Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: The Old Globe's New Musical DOG AND PONY

L-R: Jon Patrick Walker, Nicole Parker and Eric William Morris
Photos by Jim Cox

An Idaho film festival reunites a pair of estranged screenwriters in the new musical Dog and Pony by Rick Elise (Peter and the Starcatcher, Jersey Boys) and Michael Patrick Walker (Altar Boyz). As Mags (Nicole Parker) and Andy (Jon Patrick Walker) rehash memories from their 13-year partnership, we quickly see that this dysfunctional relationship was doomed from the start. We also know from the beginning how this musical is going to end.

He’s married; she’s single. He’s selfish and completely unaware of the needs of others, and she’s a nice girl who lets him walk all over her. In theory, no matter how hard Mags tries, the poor codependent girl keeps getting sucked into the orbit of the world that revolves around Andy. For thirteen years she’s been his gal Friday, best friend and “work spouse,” hanging in there like a loyal hound who keeps waiting for the ball to be thrown while cranking out successful films.  

When Andy wants her to give up her Caribbean vacation and spend Fourth of July at his country home with his family so they can write, she says yes. At Christmas time, when he begs her to pick up his present for his daughter from a New York pet shop – a dog – and drive it out to his country home by six o’clock in the morning, she also says yes. And when she finally starts to get a clue that he may be the reason she doesn’t have anything close to resembling a love life, she still gives in and agrees to fly across the country with him for a show pitch because Andy is neurotic and can’t handle planes.

Delivering the dog does give Parker a dynamite fast-patter comedy song “What The Hell Am I Doing.” In it, she berates herself while pedaling a mini car in circles around the stage, slowly coming unglued. Whether the staging is a result of the theater in the round configuration or a visual example of how Andy has her running in metaphorical circles (or a combination of both), it offers big bang for the buck and director Roger Rees knows it. Here, as in many of Walker’s songs and much of Rees staging, situation and lyrics collide to create real hilarity.

In fact, the songs, while not the kind you walk out the door humming, have a contemporary uptown appeal that make you pay attention to what they have to say. It is where some of the most telling information is revealed, especially from the supporting characters.

Heidi Blickenstaff gets two of the best songs. In Act I it’s “One Less Pony” while playing Andy’s wife Jane. No one does subtext better than Blickenstaff and what she layers into this one, with her eyes and her phrasing, make it a great example of what happens when the right actor plays the right part. It’s a dose of reality without being heavy-handed and one of the most memorable moments in the show.

Blickenstaff’s other highlight is in Act II as Bonnie, Andy’s new flame. A peculiar yet perceptive free spirit with a habit of choosing the wrong word like Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, she’s an oddball, but a likable one. And that makes her a lot of fun.

Beth Leavel is double mother trouble, first waltzing in to undercut Andy with her overbearing advice, and then later returning as Magnolia’s put-upon mom. (Yes, Mags’ full name is Magnolia, a flower whose meaning coincidentally is that which lasts and endures.) At one point Leavel switches back and forth between the two moms with such manic precision - while singing - that you wonder how she can keep the two women straight. Eric William Morris completes the cast in a combination of roles that shows his versatility, easily going from bare-chested boy toy to geeky talk show host to the real deal relationship.

Given that Walker’s character is so self-absorbed, and we don’t get to see him with his guard down nearly enough, it’s awfully hard to like him. And Parker, always the underdog, takes thirteen years and the length of a full musical before she exhibits any gumption at all. Both sing well and have the acting chops to soar in these roles but they are challenged from the start by the writing. Thats a disconnect Dog and Pony cant afford since everything rests on the audience’s ability to empathize with the main characters. Still, it’s possible that this relationship musical has a deeper story to tell. It just isn’t there yet.

Nicole Parker, Jon Patrick Walker, Beth Leavel,
Heidi Blickenstaff and Eric William Morris

May 28 - June 29, 2014
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way
San Diego, CA 92101

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