Mutt House

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Mutt House is a relentlessly genial new musical aimed at a family audience. The routine storyline combines guileless comedy and a dash of Frank Capra sentimentality to tell the story of Eddie Corbin (the sensational Ryan McCartan), a misfit young man who lives in a city-run animal shelter which, apparently, houses only dogs. And, in a tribute to Dr. Dootlittle or, perhaps more aptly Mr. Ed,  he speaks fluent canine.

Eddie’s chance meeting with his high school crush, Hannah Matthews (Claire Adams), reveals that the shelter is scheduled to be closed. Greedy Mayor Jenkins (Heather Olt), in the Lionel Barrymore role, is anxious to shut down a number of properties in order to line her pockets. Mild-mannered Eddie realizes that he must take a stand in order to save his pups.

The show opens with a raucous musical introduction to the dogs in the pound, then moves directly to a surprising sequence in which Eddie is ordered to put down Joanie (Valerie Larsen), an old bloodhound. Eddie and the other dogs sing, “All You Need,” to my knowledge, the only paean to euthanasia in musical theatre. But that’s pretty much the only surprise in Tony Cookson’s overly familiar book. Even the talking-to-animals idea, which might have put a fresh spin on foiling the mayor’s plans, is relegated to a tangent.

Disney, Pixar, and even Bullwinkle have proven that it’s possible to keep youngsters happy while still offering enough adult references to delight both sides of the age spectrum. Cookson is definitely catering to the younger set, and, at two hours with intermission, Mutt House may be pushing the attention envelope.

The score, which is attributed to Cookson, John Daniel, Robb Curtis Brown, and David O, is both pleasant and catchy. Particularly a couple of rousing Latin-influenced numbers. Though, once again, the lyrics which are attributed to the same group, veer to the juvenile.

Creator Cookson is particularly lucky in his creative team. Director Ryan Bergmann keeps the action clear and brisk, but he doesn’t hesitate to spend time on Eddie’s emotional growth. David O’s energetic orchestrations fill the theatre, and Allison Dillard’s costume design strikes just the right tone.

The cast is terrifically talented and easily raise the roof in their ensemble numbers. But McCartan’s Eddie is the heart of the show, and he owns every moment he’s on stage. His smooth sound has a palpable strength behind it, and his sense of phrasing harkens back to an earlier age of performers. While the glasses and the geeky outfit may not hide his matinee-idol looks, he plays the role with utter sincerity, finding ticks and cringing reactions that reveal Eddie’s character. It’s a masterful turn and I look forward to seeing him tackle more challenging material in the future.

Adam’s Hannah doesn’t give her anything close to her recent tour de force in Violet, but she provides a believable love interest for Eddie as she learns to embrace her inner nerd. Boise Holmes’ strongly-voiced Gerry, the manager of the shelter, will have you wishing he had more to do, and Olt does a nice job differentiating her over-the-top evil Mayor and her likable Officer Jackie.

Kirk Douglas Theatre    July 15 – August 5, 2018