Monday, July 23, 2018

Review: New Musical MUTT HOUSE Belongs to the Dogs

Ben Palacios, Max Wilcox, Garrett Marshall, Ryan McCartan, Amanda Leigh Jerry
and Gabriel González. All photos by Daren Scott

Singing strays and the humans who love them are the focus of the world premiere musical Mutt House, currently on stage in a guest production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The cute, sweet story about learning to believe in yourself isn’t a musical for deep introspection, but it does offer a good time with its charming songs, lovable mutts, and a fun production design.

Stephen Gifford creates human-sized cages with detached rolling doors to fit the actors playing dogs in the dilapidated shelter but edges them in bright neon tubing (lighting by Matthew Brian Denman), perhaps as an indicator that these unfortunate mutts could be the show dogs of their dreams if only given the chance. Happily, they do get to strut their stuff with songs that highlight each of their unique personalities and they sound terrific under musical director Anthony Lucca’s guidance.

For Pepe (Gabriel González), an energetic Chihuahua, it is a Latin-flavored up-tempo number. For Donna (Amanda Leigh Jerry), a mutt from the Bronx, it’s a sassy comedy beach-rock song. Sophie (Valerie Larsen), an award winning poodle with breeding, gets a smoky laid-back jazz cut and when Digger (Ben Palacios), the coolest and happiest of Golden Labradors, takes over the lead it morphs into a speak-singing number that’s not quite rap, not quite lyrical, but completely infectious and winning as can be. Max (Max Wilcox) is the resident sweet, comic Corgi, and Bradley (Garrett Marshall), the lovable Eeyore of the group, plays a sadsack Pit Bull.

Garrett Marshall, Ryan McCartan, and Ben Palacios

The songs are written by Tony Cookson, creator and bookwriter of the show, who enlists the aid of John Daniel, Robb Curtis Brown and David O to help create the 16+ numbers that make up the score. Most of them exist as stand-alone songs and are orchestrated by David O, which means the vocals come packed with lovely harmonies and melodies that are pleasing to the ear.

Cookson’s juvenile book, however, still needs depth and polish. At the moment, it is better suited for the After School Special crowd rather than for adults looking for the next smart, sophisticated musical. Sincerity will get you part of the way but a show needs more than that to give it legs.

The story isn’t complex. Eddie (Ryan McCartan), an insecure young man who works at the local shelter and is able to talk to the animal,s must summon up his courage and come to the aid of his friends – the dogs – when the city decides to shut them down. A love interest emerges in Hannah (Claire Adams), the girl Eddie had a crush on in junior high and who now works in the repulsive mayor’s (Heather Ott) office. We also learn that Eddie was bullied in school and that his boss Gerry (Boise Holmes) is a nice guy with a secret crush of his own. It’s a foregone conclusion that Eddie will eventually save the day and find romance in the process.

Valerie Larsen, Ben Palacios. Gabriel González and Garrett Marshall

The dogs are adorably decked out by Allison Dillard (costumes, hair & make-up). Janet Roston’s cute choreography adds pizzazz but dialogue scenes are flat in comparison. Scene transitions are choppy, with director Ryan Bergmann staging set-up movement for the next scene in the dark on one side of the stage while the lit scene we’re watching is still going on. The problem is, we can see them moving and it distracts us from what we should be watching. Some scenes end abruptly; others feel sketchy as they move to the next one without transition music or a sense of completion. In a smaller house, it might be possible to overlook the ragged edges but, on the Douglas’ larger stage, everything is exposed.

And yet, we do love a dog musical. Animals have a way of making a beeline straight to your heart and Mutt House’s fetching mongrels are no exception. These singing and dancing four-legged friends are sure to make you smile.

July 10 – August 5, 2018
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Tickets: 213-628-2772 or

Amanda Leigh Jerry and Ben Palacios

Boise Williams and Ryan McCartan

Claire Adams and Ryan McCartan

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