Review: A DOG STORY Captures Hearts and Laughs at The Davenport Theater Loft

By: Nov. 23, 2016

A DOG STORY is that rare musical comedy that manages to be sweet but not cloying, accessible but not banal, and light but not unsubstantial. With most of the city still in deep mourning over the election (and facing a logistical nightmare in Midtown for the next four years), this new musical--with a strong book by Eric H. Weinberger and excellent lyrics and music by Gayla D. Morgan--could not come at a better time. The show, directed by Justin Baldridge, was an extended-release happy pill, after which you felt (if only for an hour or two) that everything will somehow be okay.

Stefanie Brown, Lindsay VanWinkle and David Perlman
(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Making its New York debut at the Davenport Theater's Loft after a successful 2014 run in Florida, A DOG STORY is impressive on every level, beginning with the ingenious scenic design by Lauren Mills. Audience members sit on two sides of the stage, with the other two sides divided into cubbies holding props with which the actors efficiently create different settings. Lighting by Jamie Roderick deepens the effect, with a range of colors setting the mood of the Hamptons beach apartment and the dive bar. And the talented band tucked away in a corner and led Dylan MarcAurele on keyboard, Lou Garrett on guitar, and Mike Livingston on reeds, functions like a mini-orchestra. It's big sound from a little band, and music director Emily Marshall does justice to the fine orchestration and additional arrangements by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle.

The premise is cute: a driven, single, nerdy 30ish lawyer named Roland (David Perlman) becomes convinced that he's not making partner in his New York law firm due to his marital status. His WASP best friend who went (of course) to Dalton, believes that a dog is the answer to Roland's career conundrum. Guy Lassiter III (Brian Ray Norris) isn't wrong that dogs are chick magnets (I know: I'm a chick). Blair (Stefanie Brown), a workaholic redhead at a hedge fund with the face of a covergirl and the body of a voluptuous burlesque dancer, is immediately attracted to Roland when she sees the dog.

What Guy didn't realize is that the magnetic effect of untrained dogs that nip and poop everywhere is considerably weaker. Enter Miranda (Lindsie VanWinkle), the drill sergeant dog trainer and owner of Good Dog in the Hamptons, where the young lawyer rents a shabby chic apartment in August (emphasis on the shabby).

On one level, A DOG STORY is buddy comedy, with a hopelessly awkward but freakishly fit leading man cheered on by his boisterous and vulgar yet good-natured friend. Think Jim Belushi's character in About Last Night, the film adaptation of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago--except that Guy comes from money and summers at the Hamptons. But none of the "types" are what they seem. Our assumptions about Blair and Miranda turn out to be false. Within the formula, then, are some interesting deviations in character as well as plot.

Travis Chinick gets the costumes just right, particularly given his no doubt limited budget. Blair's city business attire is as accurate as her Hamptons sexy beach and casual clothing. Miranda dresses in camo for work but Jack Rogers and jeans with floral appliques or hippie peasant dresses out of work. Roland clearly aspires to the Preppy Handbook (in more ways than one), while Guy is the sexually ravenous big guy whose clothing might be described as degenerate preppy. He's the only character who isn't a workaholic--and he's proud of it!

The acting and singing are strong throughout. David Perlman (Baby It's You!) has the tenor of a Broadway star and extensive list of touring and regional credits. His naivete is endearing, even if we must suspend disbelief that a young lawyer in Manhattan could really believe-based on three recently married associates making partner-that a wife would fix everything. Lawyers trade on the distinction between correlation and causation, after all.

Lindsay VanWinkle and Brian Ray Norris
(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Brian Ray Norris has a bellowing voice, both in speech and song. His bickering with the austere Miranda (who, to extend the Mamet analogy, is the play's Elizabeth Perkins) yields some of the show's funniest moments and their duet, "Better Saturday Nights" is one of many musical highlights. Other hit numbers include "Married Over Labor Day," "Get A Dog,"The Nightmare," and "Vacation/Training Tango" (skillfully danced to Shannon Lewis' terrific choreography). "Freedom," which appears twice from different points of view, is not one of the better songs musically but it works with the play, as does "Cupid's Lullaby," which might have been shorter and still achieved its end.

For the first five or ten minutes, I was skeptical about the pantomime with the dog. In the program, Weinberger and Morgan explain that they chose not to use a real dog so that audience members could imagine Cupid as their ideal canine. (Kant would say they wanted to preserve imaginative freedom.) Thanks to the cast's solid acting, the choice worked. A DOG STORY is a clever, upbeat play beautifully executed in a chaotic and sad time for most New Yorkers (and certainly all artists in the city).

A Dog Story runs through March 6, 2017 at the Davenport Theater Loft.