CLOSBC’s new production: a tail-wagging experience

Puppy love? L-r, Harrison White, Janet Krupin, Jessica Gisin, Justin Michael Wilcox, Dane Biren, and Shanna Marie Palmer. Photo by Alysa Brennan

by Tom Fitt
Ahhhhh, dogs. Man’s best friend – especially if you like your friends defecating on the living room carpet. I had a gray hound named Lion (thanks, William Faulkner). He didn’t hunt bears. Actually, he was slow to find his feeding bowl. The Weimeraner didn’t bring me the newspaper; he didn’t bring me my slippers (probably because he had already ingested the left one). The only treasures he deposited at my feet were small, gnawed-upon rodents and cat excrement he discovered in the front yard. But, give him credit, he was extremely proud of his gift deliveries.

The Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities (CLOSBC) is offering a tribute to the furry beasts, tonight through Feb. 28. “Bark! The Musical” is Executive Producer James Blackman’s unspoken revenge on an Andrew Lloyd Webber show that portrayed a different breed of four-legged foot warmers, the ones who cough up fur balls and sing insipidly boring songs. The cover of the original cast recording of “Bark” (2004) refers to the show as “The Musical That Does It Doggie Style.” Thankfully, the pups haven’t the language facility to read The Kama Sutra, but they do like the pictures. They are in black and white.
Certainly, all involved with CLOSBC must be thrilled at the generous endorsement of this new production provided in the Feb. 1 edition of New York magazine.

The cover story is entitled “The Rise of Dog Identity Politics,” by John Homans. Okay, perhaps the story is not an homage to our local theater, but the timing is perfect and Blackman should consider messengering a box of Milk Bones to the scribe. Large sized biscuits, of course, as both Homans and Blackman are big dogs. The writer describes his dog Stella as “an elegant creature… with the runway model’s trick of looking simultaneously gorgeous and ridiculous.” Sounds like my ex-wife. He continues: “While highly vocal, with a booming baritone bark and a complex secret language of whines and growls, she’s not notably articulate.” This is my ex-wife. Homans also cites a 2008 study that found “a man with a dog had a much better chance of getting a woman’s phone number than one without.” Same can be said about a pencil.

“Bark’s” music is written by David Troy Francis; lyrics by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard and Robert Schrock. The show ran for two years at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood, making it the third-longest running theater piece in L.A. history. It received a Critics’ Choice award from the L.A. Times and was nominated for several Drama Circle awards.

“Bark” explores the daily lives of six canines residing at Deena’s Doggie Daycare. I think I stayed there once. Room service sucked, but the breakfast kibbles were tasty. As is the case with real pooches, our characters have definitive personalities. With the show in rehearsal last week, I was given free leash to interview CLOSBC’s artistic director and director of the production, Stephanie Coltrin, and three of the pups.

Howl at the room
How did Coltrin and the powers at CLOSBC come to decide upon “Bark”?
“The authors had done a rewrite and we went to a reading of it in Hollywood about a year ago. All of us at CLOSBC are dog people and we were so completely charmed with it. We loved that it is a small show – only six performers – and for those of us who have dogs, and even if you don’t, it’s first of all hilarious seeing the dogs being personified. It also confirms the feelings you have about your pet that they are more human than not,” said Coltrin. “I have a dog, and James (Blackman) has a dog, our accountant has a dog, the subscription manager has four dogs. Basically we all have dogs.”

In preparing for the show, Coltrin explained that David Troy Francis encourages wide interpretation of the musical he conceived.

“The characters are not really written into the script, so we are in the process of creating these characters.”

On the production side, Coltrin said CLOSBC has expanded the band from the original single keyboard player to a group of five, under the direction of Daniel Gary Busby.

Great Dane
Versatility is a great asset for an actor. Dane Biren appears in “Bark” as the Jack Russell named “Rocks.” Just a couple months earlier, he played a college teacher in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse. Prof to pup? Most would not consider this to be a giant leap.

With true Stanislavskian diligence, Biren takes his work home with him.
“I have a dog,” said Biren. “He’s a funny mutt, kinda like the Jack Russell I’m playing, but I’m not even sure what kind of dog he is. It’s fun doing character study for a show like this because you can sit at home and watch your pet do nothing.”
As a point of reference, my present pooch – Woody – does exactly that when ESPN televises the Westminister Kennel Club’s annual show. It’s a weekend of serious leg humping as handlers parade the Afghans across the screen.

Biren explains Rocks’ character: “It’s the first day of puppy care, and I’m new, so I’m just taking the excitement of everything that’s new and experiencing all of the wonderment. That’s how I’m approaching it: everything is brand, brand new. Rocks is kinda guided as to how to be a dog and find his own way. I’m like the student.”

Royalty rules
Regal titles make for good doggie names. I’ve owned a Prince, a King, a Duke and a Queenie. The male Rottweiler wasn’t crazy about the last name, but he adapted quickly, learning to urinate without lifting his leg.
Harrison White plays King, “the oldest dog; the alpha dog,” he said. “I think of him as a chocolate Labrador. It’s a fun part and a fun journey, and we’re just getting into it. The music is fantastic; we’re just now beginning to focus on each others’ characters. It’s the quintessential answer to ‘Cats,’ I think.”

White is presently dogless due to living conditions, “but I really want one; a mid-sized dog. I’ve actually gone as far as going down to the pound and looking at dogs, that’s how much I want one.”
White sees King as strong, but also lovable. “He’s probably the leader of the pack, but he wants some nurturing.”

Poodle envy
Do poodles have green eyes? Regardless of her pedigree, Janet Krupin is no barker. Her character, Chanel, is an opera singing diva with an attitude. Have you ever met a poodle sans attitude? Have you ever met an opera singer… nevermind. The beaded dog collar is a most appropriate accoutrement for this coiffed purebred.

This is Krupin’s first appearance at CLOSBC, with or without the bejeweled throat prop.
“I’m the high maintenance one of the bunch. She just has a zest for the joie de vive, the finer things,” said Krupin.

The young Seattle-born actress has never owned a dog (“my father was allergic”) “but I know what kind of dog I would have: a Husky. I like big dogs and I can see myself running along the beaches in Seattle with my Husky dog.”

Are there leash laws in Seattle?

Krupin looks forward to the vocals, as well she should. She most definitely has the pipes. Check her out on YouTube.

“I believe the original cast album only had a keyboard; we’re going to have a few more musicians and we’re redoing quite a bit of the show. It will be exciting to see it on a bigger stage – our new and improved ‘Bark!’”

Also appearing in the show are Justin Michael Wilcox as Sam, Shanna Marie Palmer as Boo, and Jessica Gisin as Golde. Karl Warden is choreographer.

Rawhide chewy bones and arguably fresh toilet water will be available for gnawing and lapping at the show’s intermission.

‘Bark! The Musical,’ in previews tonight and tomorrow, and opening on Saturday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., corner of Aviation. Performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees Feb. 20 and 27, at 2 p.m.; Sunday matinees Feb. 14, 21 and 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets, $45-$60. Closes Feb. 28. Call (310) 372-4477 or visit ER


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