Joan Hess, Patrick Boll, Jennifer Cody, and Joseph Morales
in Henry and Mudge
(© Joan Marcus)
Joan Hess, Patrick Boll, Jennifer Cody, and Joseph Morales
in Henry and Mudge
(© Joan Marcus)
There is something surefire about any story with a talking dog. TheatreworksUSA has taught an old dog new tricks, though, by producing Henry and Mudge, a musical with a remarkable singing and dancing pooch. The show, based on the books by Cynthia Rylant, will delight your family, despite a so-so cast and spotty production design, since the material is good enough to carry you over and above those shortcomings.

The show's creators, Kait Kerrigan (book and lyrics) and Brian Lowdermilk (music and lyrics) have written the role of Mudge, the dog, so wisely and well that even an understudy with half-an-hour's rehearsal time could step into the part and steal the show. And indeed, actor David Abeles deserves a bow and a wow for the incredible job he did on the recent afternoon when he had to fill in for star Todd Buonopane on such short notice. We couldn't pick up one missed cue, one dropped lyric, or one missed piece of blocking.

The story revolves around a city family who moves out into the country where, to mollify their unhappily transplanted young son, Henry, they get him a dog. The musical starts out as an amusing lesson in how to train a dog and a child, but it soon becomes a richer piece of work about responsibility and devotion. The plot even takes an unexpected turn into Lassie-like territory when Mudge has to save his young master, who has run off into the woods.

One of the charms of this show is that Mudge isn't written as one of those wise-cracking talking animals that knows more than its owner. Here, Mudge is as bewildered as any real pet would be by the foreign words being hurled at him. His world is simple: Give me a treat and I'm yours. Well, it's a little more complex than that. Love has something to do with it, too.

The production would work better if Joseph A. Morales, who plays Henry, could be more convincingly child-like. Instead, he comes off like an older kid with learning disabilities. In contrast, his cousin and best friend, Annie, who comes to visit Henry in the country, is played with child-like abandon by Jennifer Cody. She is great fun to watch. In support, Patrick Boll plays Dad with assurance, while Joan Hess plays Mom with warmth, but with a voice that does not impress.

There's also a tuneful score by Lowdermilk and mostly good lyrics by Kerrigan, although we worried about the lyrics in the early going because the show's second song, "Something's Missing," was painfully coy. We're happy to report that there is no such misstep in the rest of the score.

The show is directed with verve by Peter Flynn, with playful costume designs by Rob Bevener adding to the fun. On the negative side, the set design by Paul Weimer was ineffective and, more distractingly, the sound design by Eric Shim was unreliable; there were sound issues throughout the show with microphones going off for long stretches at a time. Presumably that will be fixed during the run.

Yet, we heartily suggest you go fetch some tickets for Henry and Mudge. After all, we're sure you deserve a treat.