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Rescue Rue

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rue and Gretchen Wylder as the Fairy Dogmother.
Photo by Whitney Browne

Love at first sight is as cliché and useless as storytelling can get, right? Maybe. But good luck not falling for it—and almost everything else—hook, line, and sinker in Rescue Rue, a ceaselessly winning and unerringly convincing entry in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Of course, there are a few twists here. The instant love connection between Alex and Rue comes about in no small part because the former (Sarah Haines) is an adult woman and the latter (Lisa Helmi Johanson) is a puppy. And their union occurs much closer to the end of the tale than the beginning. But so what? Far more relevant is that Stacey Weingarten (concept, book, lyrics, and direction) and Kate Steinberg and Joshua Zecher-Ross (music and lyrics) have tossed together a breezy (65 minutes, tops) show that, though intended to help children learn of the virtues of pet adoption, is smart and structured enough to be irresistible to adults, too. And, through thorough application of time-tested staging techniques and charming puppets, it's unapologetically theatrical, too.

Weingarten guides us gaily through the story, which is admittedly not always upbeat. The tiny brown Rue comes from an abusive home, where her owners lavish endless praise on their poodle, Prissy (a snugly smug Nate Begle), but have no love to spare for her. One night, Rue is visited by her giant, glittering, floating Fairy Dogmother (Gretchen Wylder), who sounds more than a little like Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, and is granted one wish. Rue chooses to have a happy ending, but realizes too late that that might only come about as a result of some not-so-happy events.

Rue is kicked out of the house, and on the streets and subsequently in the pound meets the street-tough, one-eyed Squish (Avenue Q's Jennifer Barnhart, brusque, sympathetic, and perfect), and twin trick-performing dogs Apollo and Artemis (Jason Jacoby and Brendan Malafronte), before she's scooped up by a rescue time, transported to a shop in New York, and, after a few false starts, meets Alex and... well, you can guess the rest.

The book is a crisp delight, hilarious and moving by turns, and the score glides without apparent effort through the ups and downs of the dogs lives and their dreams of eternal love with a "furever friend." (One number that recasts The Big Apple as "The Big Chew Toy" is especially clever; Alex and Rue's sole duet together, "Perfect Pair," is genuinely touching.) Weingarten's staging is brisk and inventive, as is Rhonda Miller's showy, paw-heavy choreography. And the puppets work in seamless concert with the actors to create the distinct and lovable characters, canine and human alike, who accompany us on this adventure.

If Rescue Rue has a problem—and that's a big "if"—it's that it's pretty lightweight even by the standards of most children's musicals. As it is, the story feels a bit stretched out, there's not much in the way of conflict outside the opening scene at Rue's first home, and the last couple of scenes play a bit too much like commercials for Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue. Tightening and reinforcement would not be bad things here.

But so much of Rescue Rue is so good, and it's all so heartfelt and wittily executed, I'm wary of suggesting that Weingarten and her collaborators tinker with it too much. It does what it needs to in a tuneful and entertaining way, and knows just how and when to strike your heart and funny bone. Yes, you (and, advance warning, probably your kids) will come out of the theater wanting to adopt a dog. More important, however, you'll come out reminded that love at first sight, however hokey and improbable it may be, actually can happen.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
Rescue Rue
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