DOGS LIKE ‘CATS’ FOR DAWG

Montecito is going to the dogs.
Sorry, make that “DAWGS!”
That’s the title of an off-Broadway musical that is being turned into a major Montecito fundraiser replete with intricate dog costumes and a bevy of dancing songs as a benefit for DAWG, the Dog Adoption and Welfare Group of Santa Barbara. The county’s only no-kill shelter for canines, DAWG was founded 15 years ago by Shirley Jansen, who has made it her recent mission to come up with extravaganzas that raise funds for the facility, which stands right next to the County Shelter on Overpass Road.

But this event came as a serendipitous surprise even to her. “DAWGS!” was originally conceived as a musical revue in 1983, as a canine comeback for “Cats,” which was breaking box office records on Broadway at the time. Milt Larsen – the longtime Montecito resident who began his career as a writer for “Truth or Consequences” and is the owner of the Magic Castle in Hollywood – remarked to his lifelong friends, the Academy Award-winning brother composing team of Richard and Robert Sherman, that they had written a number of dog songs over the years for various films. Why not cull them together and let the dogs have their day?

Thus was born the musical – words and music by the Sherman Brothers, book by Milt Larsen – which played at the Variety Arts Theater in Los Angeles, earning two Dramalogue Awards and a critic’s award for best costumes. It also had short runs in a few cities around the countries, and Larsen at one point rewrote the script with an eye to turning it into a TV film.

But that was nearly 20 years ago, and the project long had faded from memory.

Which is why Jansen knew nothing about it when she approached the Larsens for some help in creating the organization’s 2006 fundraiser, the third year of the annual bash that last year offered a “Poker with the Stars” night.

“We’re just trying to insert our little paw into Montecito’s very competitive charitable event schedule, so we asked the Larsens if they could possibly direct us to some magicians who could help,” Jansen recalls, possibly hoping at the time she wasn’t barking up the wrong tree. “As we were drinking tea, Milt leaned back in his chair and said, ‘You know, a few years ago we had this musical called DAWGS!’ Our mouths just came unhinged. It seemed like a magical, mystical thing that they had a musical with our exact name. It seemed fated to be ours.”

Milt Larsen and wife, Arlene, who had designed the original costumes – most of which the current cast will be using – didn’t even have to bark up a storm to get the Sherman Brothers to agree to waive rights fees for the benefit.

The original thought was merely to perform a few of the songs cabaret style as part of a one-night affair, which is scheduled for Rockwood, the Woman’s Club of Santa Barbara, on August 20. But then Big Dogs decided to sponsor two additional shows open to the general public, so the production grew into what now has become a full-fledged musical show complete with a cast of nine, a full 15 musical numbers, dancing and a multimedia video dimension.

Richard Weiss, who directed productions for Opera Santa Barbara director, is directing “DAWGS! The Musical,” which stars a cast of local actors and dancers including special guest appearances by singer Leslie Lembo and Montecito’s own Tab Hunter.

“We’re mounting an entire production almost from scratch,” says Weiss, who is also serving as choreographer and musical director. “It’s a lot of work but I’m glad we’re doing it.”

The story is about how dogs are treated in a pound in preparation for adoption, paralleling the mission of the DAWG shelter itself.

“The whole purpose is to get them in shape and find them a new home,” Weiss says. “They all have different personalities, so the situations vary – just about anything a dog might find itself in. Happily – and because it’s a fantasy – the show ends with all of them being adopted by the appropriate family.”

Most of the show’s songs were culled from The Sherman Brothers’ vast catalogue – their collaboration began with the Disney classic “It’s a Small World After All” and includes their double Academy Award-winning score for “Mary Poppins” (one for the song “Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and the Oscar-nominated scores for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Slipper and the Rose” and “The Magic of Lassie.” Other box office hits include “Jungle Book,” “The Aristocats,” “The Parent Trap,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” and “Snoopy Come Home.”

The latter show contributed several titles including “No Dogs Allowed” and “Fundamental Friend Dependability,” which the Shermans wrote in the style of their own “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from “Mary Poppins.” “Veritable Smorgasbord” comes from “Charlotte’s Web,” here adapted to dogs who’d rather ravage for food in the garbage can at a fairgrounds than eat the healthy dog food from a tin can.

Other titles are spoofs from different shows or adapted from popular songs, while a few were written just for “DAWGS!” itself, including two co-penned with Larsen as lyricist: “Cuddle Me,” in which an older dog remembers her owner always coming back to him, through three marriages, and “Be Free at Last.”

Among the cast members are Miller James (Bodger), who runs Storybook Theater at the Ensemble Theater Company; Eduardo Cueto (Labrador), a dancer who appeared with the new Ballet Santa Barbara last spring; ubiquitous Carpinteria thespian Geren Piltz (Cocker Spaniel); and Piltz’s fiancée, Lobero executive assistant Holly Chadwin (Poodle). Chadwin, who also volunteers at the shelter, is the only member with any direct connection to DAWG.

“I just thought of everyone I know who loves dogs and called in every favor I could think of,” Weiss says. “Then there’s those I’d worked with before who I knew I could depend on.”

With the pedigree of the performers, producers and support crew, one might expect a high degree of professionalism from this version of “DAWGS! The Musical.” Indeed, its creators are even curious to check it out. The Larsens will be on hand for all shows, although Robert Sherman, who lives in London, won’t be able to make it since he’s busy with stage musical versions of “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” now playing in the East End. Richard Sherman, who lives in Beverly Hills, will be in New York in August working on a fall production of “Poppins” on Broadway, but he plans to be back in time for the Marjorie Luke shows.

Anyway, it’s worth attending just for the costumes alone.

“The actors really will look like dogs,” says Weiss, pointing out that the costumes are the originals constructed painstakingly from hundreds and hundreds of wigs of human hair. Add makeup, and the cast should come off as convincingly as the furry felines in “Cats.”

Which brings up the question – would someone who wasn’t a dog lover also enjoy the show.

“Excuse me,” exclaims Jansen, truly a dog’s best friend. “Did you say, ‘If they didn’t like dogs?’ You mean there are such people?!”

Show Info

“DAWGS! The Musical” produced by DAWG the shelter will be presented at the Santa Barbara Woman’s Club, 903 Mission Canyon Road, on Sunday, August 20. The evening begins with a hosted cocktail bar, hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction at 5 pm, followed by dinner and the show at 7 pm. Tickets are $150. Additional performances will be staged at the Marjorie Luke Theatre at 7 pm on Saturday, September 9 and 2 pm Sunday, September 10. Tickets are priced at $10-$50. Call 681-0561 or visit sbdawg.org for information and reservations.)