March 9, 2007

Celebrating what ‘a dog’s life’ gives to us
by David Ollington

The American Heartland Theatre focuses on sellable fare. This prolific Crown Center theatre now celebrates its 20th season. During that time, the Heartland production staff has sought quality entertainment more than high art. Other theatres strive for experimentation and risk.

Refreshing, then, that AHT Director of Production Paul Hough and Executive Director Lilli A. Zarda gave Kansas City a world premiere musical. A Dog’s Life opened at the Heartland March 2 and runs until April 22.

(l to r) Jessalyn Kincaid, Kurt Robbins and John-Michael Zuerlein star in A Dog’s Life. (photo by Shane Rowse)

Hough invited librettist Sean Grennan and musical composer Leah Okimoto, the authors of Married Alive, which ran at AHT last season, to create. True to most original theatrical productions, they gave a staged workshop reading in October then refined the work for the official March opening.

For theme, they chose humankind’s relationship with dogs. Grennan’s affection for the canine permeates his program bio, the book, the lyrics and the entire production.

A Dog’s Life resembles A.R. Gurney’s play Sylvia, which AHT mounted in 2002: actor portrays dog onstage. Sylvia, technically a straight play, even contains a musical number. But in both, actors speak aloud the dogs’ thoughts. Perhaps dramatists have begun a new genre, the dog play.

Joel (Kurt Robbins) wants a dog to give to his on-the-outs girlfriend. He goes to an animal shelter and meets (via musical number) three dogs, Jack (John-Michael Zuerlein), Big Dog (Nicholas Ward), and Little Dog (Jessalyn Kincaid). He settles on the more docile Jack.

Jack will only stay with Joel a day then Joel will give him away. Because of Joel’s denial about the finality of his human-to-human relationship, one day becomes a dog’s lifetime.

Grennan cleverly composed personifications of both the frustrating and rewarding experiences dogs gives our species. Jack goes through the trash and gets the basket stuck on his head. He chews shoes, wakes up Joel at odd hours, and loves to fetch. They go for rides in the car, very simply and theatrically realized with four chairs. Grennan with words, Zuerlein as Jack with his body and voice, and Robbins as Joel then very sweetly manifest the tender sorrow of dealing with an aging dog. They titled the play well.

Okimoto put thoughtful creativity into her musical compositions for the show but she failed to create many catchy melodies. A Dog’s Life contains more slow numbers than fast songs, a lot of contemporary musical theatre, modulating angst. (Theatre programs for musicals usually include a list of songs. Did somebody forget?)

In the ‘80s, Broadway took an operatic turn. Before that, musical theatre composers gave us melodies, evenly phrased tunes. The contemporary musical theatre sound resembles monologues set to music. The artistry of song crafting takes a back seat to the completion of the lyricist’s sentences.

Okimoto composed two exceptions. Zuerlein sings “It All Goes By So Fast” (I hope I have the title right) during Jack’s first ride in the car. It’s about all the things the dog sees out the window of a moving car. Wisely, the production team chose to reprise this song more than once. It becomes the hum-able theme, a connection to the brevity of a dog’s time on earth, and a symbol of how fast time moves.

The other more rhythmically phrased tune Okimoto created opens Act II. “Walkin’ Man” expresses Jack’s love for going on walks, and takes the form of a ‘60s TV Western theme song, like the cantering of a horse.

Irving Berlin and Jerry Herman among other musical theatre composers created several direct counterpoint numbers. One character sings a song, another character responds with song, then the two sing the different songs simultaneously and we delight at how cleverly these disparate melodies marry. Okimoto missed a wonderful opportunity to craft such a number when Joel takes Jack to the park to play ball and receives an important business call. Jack sings about how he wants to play ball while Joel sings into the phone. They sing their different ideas with and against each other, but the musical and lyrical repartee carries a dull blade.

Zuerlein has a formidable physical task ahead of him — to execute this show eight times a week for more than a month. Director Hough put in place understudy Seth Golay, and given the high athletic demands of the role, odds are that Golay will perform before April 22. Mercifully, Costume Designer Ron Megee put Zuerlein in kneepads.

The program credits Steven Eubank as assistant movement director. Eubank has directed his own productions at the Just Off Broadway Theatre and elsewhere. The Unicorn has engaged him as a choreographer.

The actors do a few minor dance steps, some marching in the “Walkin’ Man” number, all movement that Hough could easily have set himself. Maybe Eubank helped Zuerlein move around like a dog, but they’d be smarter hiring a physical therapist for that. Eubank has proven his skill as a director. Get him out of the choreographer’s chair and into the seat in which he belongs.

Despite some too-often slow music, A Dog’s Life expresses the huge amount of love and joy that exists between our canine buddies and us. Appropriately, for a 20th Season hallmark, the show feels like a gift to our city, a world premiere. The action of the show even takes place in Kansas City. The program commences with a letter to KC from Hough and Zarda, listing local theatrical organizations and recent accomplishments. With A Dog’s Life, AHT has made a small gesture towards community.

A Dog’s Life runs until April 22 at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999 or visit

David Ollington can be contacted at


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