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A Canine Classic? 

Tucson hosts a pooch-driven musical on the way to its new off-Broadway home

The dog days of summer arrive early this year, as Arizona Onstage Productions presents a July run of the musical Bark! It's a family-friendly but not childish show in which all the characters are dogs. No, not real dogs--you can hear that on a notorious old Sinatra record--but people singing life stories from the canine point of view.

Think of it as composer David Troy Francis' way of lifting his leg on Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats.

"I actually left that one at intermission," says Francis, who spends most of the season as a classical pianist performing American works. Every year, though, he takes on a different kind of project, and about five years ago, that turned out to be writing songs for somebody else's short film about dogs. "I loved the songs so much that I went to my friend Robert Schrock, the creator of Naked Boys Singing, and asked if he thought I could turn it into a musical."

Schrock saw potential; the two, along with an assortment of lyricists and director-choreographer Kay Cole, developed the show, which opened in Los Angeles in 2004 for an anticipated 12-week run, but didn't close until two years later. Francis wound up using only two songs from the film, and composed everything else afresh in styles ranging from ballads to salsa to rap.

Francis is preparing Bark! for an off-Broadway production and has, he says, turned down more than 300 requests from small theaters across the country to mount their own versions. But Francis has been curious to see how the show will play between the coasts, so he has licensed it for test runs in only three communities--including Tucson. "We're trying to get it right so when we get our one shot in New York, we're not crucified," Francis says.

Arizona Onstage's Kevin Johnson braced himself for the worst when he went to see a friend in the Los Angeles production last summer.

"Singing dogs? Gross! That's something you'd see at a theme park," says Johnson, who himself put in a few years of doing shows at theme parks. "But by the second or third number, I realized the sincerity of the score was way beyond what I'd expected. It's not Einstein material, but it's clever and cute, and surprisingly difficult to learn."

Bark! is song-driven rather than plot-driven, but Johnson says it's more than just a revue. "We've got six dogs with distinct personalities that we get to know through the songs," he says. "In rehearsals, we've been working so much on the characters."

Still, the fact remains that these characters are dogs, creatures who howl with sirens and pee on things and have other annoying habits. "Some of the people in this cast have doctorates, and I'm making them drag their butts across the floor," Johnson says. "But they do it so sincerely."

Much rehearsal time has been given over to serious discussions of whether to pronounce a certain frequently occurring word "whizzing" or "whizzin'." This is not a show that Johnson and his cast take lightly.

Nor should they. Although much of the material is the goofy stuff you'd expect dogs to sing and dance about, some of the songs revolve around more serious issues, including the need for companionship and the necessity of fantasy escape from abusive relationships.

Says composer Francis, "There's a song in the show with a dog singing, 'I am a terrier from Mars.' That was inspired by this petite black woman who would always come down the street by a restaurant where my lover and I eat a lot, and she'd have vociferous arguments with the parking meters. She's been so abused in her life that she's created an alternate reality. So that turned into a song where a dog is tied to a chain, and this is how he's chosen to escape, imagining that he's from Mars and has all these adventures. The show is about the way we view others, and how we treat them."

Francis notes proudly that Bark! has been endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States, the first time that organization has endorsed a commercial entity. Opening night of the Tucson run will serve as a Humane Society benefit, and every night, photos of immediately adoptable dogs will be displayed in the lobby. "We couldn't have the actual dogs there," Johnson explains, "because the travel back and forth would probably be traumatic for them, and they'd make noise during the show, and we'd never get the smell out of the lobby."

Bark! is a sort of anti-Cats, and not just because it's about dogs. It's designed to be an intimate show, without stage spectacle, and Johnson is not even dressing his cast in doggie suits. "Just a little makeup on the nose," he says. "It's not like The Lion King, with huge masks. They don't even have tails or floppy ears--unless they already have floppy ears."

Johnson stresses that although Arizona Onstage Productions has heretofore specialized in grown-up material--musicals about homosexuals, murderous starlets, presidential assassins, brain tumors and dead people--children are more than welcome at Bark!

"Parents should know that it doesn't have a squeaky-clean G rating," Johnson warns. "It uses the word 'bitch' and talks about pissing on cats, but it doesn't use the f-word."

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