Manatee Players' Bark! The Musical! is a crowd-pleaser

"Bark! The Musical," a show told from the point of view of a group of dogs, opens Oct. 22 at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton. PUBLICITY PHOTO
"Bark! The Musical," a show told from the point of view of a group of dogs, opens Oct. 22 at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton. PUBLICITY PHOTO

The latest Manatee Players show in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater -- the smaller of the two performance spaces at the Manatee Performing Arts Center -- just opened Thursday night. But it already looks to be attracting near-record crowds.

In fact, almost every seat was taken for Thursday night's performance of "Bark! The Musical," and Manatee Players reports strong sales for the rest of the run. That's great news for a theater that has had a hard time finding its audience.

"Bark!," a little-known musical about a group of dogs, proved to be a crowd-pleaser. People in the audience laughed heartily and had to wipe away tears during the show's lone sad sequence.

"Bark!" is essentially a revue, with a succession of very loosely connected songs and very little actual story. The six characters are all dogs, three males and three females. In the first act they're in a doggie day care, and in the second they're in a dog park.

The songs have titles such as "'Whizzin' on Stuff," "Three Bitches" and "I'm in Love With Lassie." That gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of humor that dominates "Bark!," especially in the first act. There are lots of jokes about pee and poop, and lots of plays on the word "bitch."

It's silly and cute, but only occasionally truly funny.

All six cast members (Carl Bowman, Ashley Cronkhite, Andrea Keddell, Tahj Malik, Jason Moore and Kris Sethi) are strong, with good voices and appealing stage presences, though their voices don't always blend well. On opening night, they appeared tentative at first, but warmed up to the crowd and the material by the second act.

The second act has much stronger material for them to work with, starting with a Billie Holiday-style song called "Howling Just to Scare Away the Blues," in which Sethi sings about being left at home alone all day, and "M-U-T-T Rap," a very old-school, and very fun, rap about various breed of dogs performed by Moore and the other two male cast members.

A first act highlight is Keddell's number "Il Cane Dell Opera,"

in which she exercises some serious vocal chops. The song's about Keddell's character, a poodle named Chanel, listening to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio with her owner, during which she fantasizes about being a singer herself.

Director/choreographer Kelly Burnette keeps the feeling loose and the dances simple, which keeps the emphasis on the songs. The music is by David Troy Francis with lyrics by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, Mark Winkler and Bob Schrock. (Winkler and Dillard also wrote the book.)

Georgina Willmott has created some fun costumes for the show, just dog-like enough to identify breeds and types while they help establish characters.

One big liability -- the only notable one, in fact -- is an extremely unattractive set that makes the show look cheap, especially at first when the cast and material have not quite hit their stride.

At times "Bark!" is so cute that you could almost call it "cutesy." But there are enough times when the writers offer some substantial observations and clever lyrics, and the melodies are tuneful enough, that "Bark!" pleases its target audience, which is people who have special relationships with their dogs. And there are enough of those people that "Bark!" should continue to fill seats through its entire run

Details: Through Nov. 8, Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave, W., Bradenton. Show times: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26 general, $13 students. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.