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Manatee Players open 'Bark! The Musical!' at the Manatee Performing Arts Center

Andrea Keddell wanted to be in a spelling bee, but she ended up in the doghouse. And she's thrilled about it.

Keddell is one of the six cast members of "Bark! The Musical," which is opening this week in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center. She plays Chanel, a poodle. Her five castmates also play dogs.

She had auditioned for "The 25th Annual Putnman County Spelling Bee," the Manatee Players musical that opens Oct. 29 next door in Stone Hall.

"They said, 'Have you considered 'Bark!'?" and I said "I don't even know what 'Bark' is," Keddell said.

She wasn't alone. Even Kelly Burnette, who's directing "Bark!," is a long-time director and choreographer -- she works often at Manatee Players, and teaches at State College of Florida and Manatee School for the Arts -- had never heard of it before she was asked to direct the show.

"That's very rare, that there's a musical that I don't know about," Burnette said. After a few weeks of rehearsal, they've both become enthusiastic fans the obscure show.

Although it's not too well known, "Bark! The Musical" has been around for a while and it's been popular with audiences and critics. It premiered in 2004 in Los Angeles, and it earned rave reviews. It's been produced all around the country, including a seven-month stint in Chicago.

In the first act, the six dogs in "Bark!" are in a doggie day care center. There's a puppy who dreams of barking like a big dog, an opera-singing poodle (Keddell's character), and a street mutt who raps and sometimes cross-dresses as a chihuahua. The characters are obvious crosses between dogs and humans, Burnette said. They're more like Snoopy in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" than Rum Tum Tugger in "Cats."

The six dogs take turns singing about the joys and tribulations of their lives. In the second act, the action moves to a dog park.

"It's a really loose plot," Keddell said. "It's almost

like a musical revue."

It was Keddell's opera chops that made the people at Manatee Players think she'd make a good Chanel. She's liking the show and the cast.

"It's turned out to be a really fun experience," she said.

When "Bark!" plays around the country, it's often used to highlight the work of local animal welfare organizations. That's the case here, too. "Bark!" is part of the Manatee Players' "Action Through Acting" program. The theater is partnering with the Humane Society of Manatee County, which will have representatives in the theater lobby. The theater and the Humane Society are also presenting panel discussions about animal issues on METV.

Details: Oct. 23-Nov. 8, Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave, W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26 general, $13 students. Information: 941-748-5875,

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