Saturday, March 10, 2007

Going to the Dogs

The American Heartland Theatre, a textbook "community theatre" that usually features upbeat comedy and musical reviews has went over the edge. Its current production is a poignant, accidental and almost passionate love story between two males. Shades of "Brokeback Mountain"; one of the characters is even named Jack. And like Jack and Ennis, they can't quit each other, even when they try.

This show is a more simple, yet just as elemental a story and one that has played out in many lives. Joel is a young, self-centered and ambitious man whose life is fundamentally changed when he allows a rescued dog to take over his life. Sound familiar? Like so many have discovered, he realizes that the love he shares with his dog Jack is special and thus deeper than any of his human relationships.

There is a subtle message to those who think dogs are presents or throw aways like an ugly necktie or a juicer. Joel gets a pound pup for a girl he is trying to impress who quickly dismisses both Joel and the dog. Joel tries to take Jack back, but of course, Jack has worked his magic already. Jack is one of the lucky ones, and never lets us forget that.

The acting was wonderful with the 3 of the 4 actors portraying dogs. Shouldn't work, but it did, brilliantly. John-Michael Zuerlein plays Jack with panache and just the right touch of comedy and cuteness. Jessalyn Kincaid, who was brilliantly nuts in "Leaving Iowa" is just as spectacular as Little Dog, a high-strung, whirling dervish terrier. Nicholas Ward is wonderful as Big Dog, a big lug of a junkyard dog with a big heart and a desire for the perfect nap. Ward is a big hulk of an African American and for some reason I think there is a lot of "Big Dog" in his personality. These two were Jack's shelter mates and provide a subtle commentary on diversity, survival and mellowing with age that is almost more interesting than the story of Jack and Joel.

Joel, portrayed by Kurt Robbins, is basically a jerk, but a sympathetic one. It is wonderful to watch him mellow as he comes under Jack's spell. All the actors are great singers and were in good voice, something not always true in the AHT productions.

"A Dog's Life", a new musical from the team of writer Sean Grennan and composer Leah Okimoto (Married Alive) is a damn good production (going on through April 15), a must see and likely the best production I have ever seen at the American Heartland Theatre.

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