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A Dog Story

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 17, 2016

Stefanie Brown, Lindsie VanWinkle, and David Perlman
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Leave it to Cupid to melt all the hearts he's not able to pierce with his arrows. I'm not talking about the Roman god of erotic love, by the way, but rather Cupid the puppy, the adorable central character in the musical A Dog Story, which just opened at the Loft at the Davenport Theatre. To see him is to fall head over heels (paws?) for him, and his every moment onstage in Eric H. Weinberger and Gayla D. Morgan's show is worth treasuring. Whether Cupid is just frolicking with his owner, acting as the ultimate chick magnet, or kindling well-meaning mischief, he is, without a doubt, where it's at.

The rest of this thoroughly resistible evening, though, is all bones and no meat. Even the 90-minute running time seems hyperinflated given the paper-thin premise: Roland (David Perlman), an associate at a New York law firm, believes that he'll only get promoted to partner if he's married, so he takes the advice of his overgrown-frat-boy friend Guy (Brian Ray Norris) and buys Cupid to use to troll for women during a month in the Hamptons. The main object of his desire is Blair (Stefanie Brown), a sexy hedge fund manager, but he won't have a chance with her unless he gets Cupid trained. The local trainer is Miranda (Lindsie VanWinkle), who's spunky yet strict, and proves as determined to make Roland the perfect dog owner as she is Cupid the best-behaved pet on Long Island.

If you can't see where this is going, stop reading now and get to an eye doctor. From the early confusions to the mid-show stresses to the ultimate wrap-up, there's not a single surprise to be found here; this is, most charitably, an old-fashioned rom-com that even Hollywood might reject as too treacly and formulaic. Weinberger's book is pedestrian in other ways, too, most notably in its characterization of Guy as a vulgar ladies'-man dolt and Blair as a capitalist-opportunist; they lack the warmth and clarity they need to function as equal pillars in a four-person show rather than just lazy plot guideposts. And although Morgan's music is unmemorably catchy, her lyrics tend toward the banal.

"Get a dog," Guy sings near the beginning. "Then take that dog for a walk / Some babe will stop you to talk / About dogs." Later on, chatting up a woman in a bar, he croons, "Here's to better Saturday nights / Feelin' like a champ instead of feelin' alone. / Bars without a mirror that's revealin' / You're a dog with no bone." And Miranda's spiky personality is defined this way: "Cupid is like other pups— / He learns fast, cuz he's willing and bright. / Humans, though, are tough to train, / But I train 'em til they drop or they get it right!"

Only one moment comes across as musically necessary, and, not coincidentally, it's also the one that strains the least. When Miranda ends up spending the night with Roland to train Cupid how to sleep properly (yes, seriously), she sings him a lullaby that's so quite, charming, and off-hand, it feels almost improvisatory. "Puppy, puppy pie, / Time to go to sleep, / Take a little rest. / Sleepy little boy, / Close your little eyes and sleep. / You're not alone, / You're in my arms. / It's safe to dream."

This captures unconditional love as nothing else does, and is a much-needed oasis of serenity given how anxious but directionless everything else is. At least Lauren Mills has crafted a nice ultramodern set, with cube-shaped cabinets that reveal the various locales; and costume designer Travis Chinick and lighting designer Jamie Roderick have a fair amount of fun outlining the rest of this world. Musical director Dylan Marcaurele keeps the songs zipping along, though the staging (by Justin Baldridge) is leaden and the choreography (by Shannon Lewis) is distractingly showy—it's bad enough that Roland and Miranda sing a tango about their conflicts, but do they need dance steps that only underscore its obviousness?

Brown is a delight as Blair, making her saucy and alluring even though, as written, she's pretty self-involved and off-putting. You can definitely see why Roland and Guy would both fall for her at first sight; she lights up the stage every second she's on it. The others are rather dimmer, though they all work hard, and if VanWinkle relaxes a bit, she could make Miranda a more appealing presence with a more important journey to make.

Sadly, we don't get as much as we need from Perlman to fulfill the romance that really matters, between Roland and Cupid, so his transformation from burned-out skeptic to doting dog owner is less believable than it ought to be. Still, Cupid is great, even when he's created through pantomime and imagination rather than flesh, blood, and fur. We love Cupid even when we don't see him; such is the magic of tiny dogs and stagecraft. You'll walk away wanting to take him home, even if the rest of the musical about him is unlikely to stick with you until you reach the theater's door, let alone your own.

A Dog Story
Through March 6
The Loft at The Davenport Theater, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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