Mudge, the 182-pound mutt who shares title billing in Cynthia Rylant’s “Henry and Mudge” series of books for children (at present numbering 28), is lovable, friendly, irresistible and clumsily slobbery — adjectives that can be used to describe the newest effort from the estimable TheaterworksUSA. The musical adaptation is a generally winning affair, with a few qualifications that are not likely to bother young audiences.
Centering on a boy and his dog, the show follows Henry (Joseph Morales) and his parents (Joan Hess, Patrick Boll) to a ramshackle house in the country, where they fetch a dog from the pound. Early stages of the tuner show Henry trying unsuccessfully to train Mudge (Todd Buonopane).
Plot develops when cousin Annie (Jennifer Cody) visits from the city (as in “Henry and Mudge and the Careful Cousin”). Initially squeamish at the thought of drool on her pink dress, Annie soon discovers she can get Mudge to perform tricks at the snap of a finger. Henry gets jealous of Annie’s success and runs off to the forest. Mudge finds his master and brings him home for a happy ending.
Show picks up, and how, when Annie comes to town or, more accurately, leaps in. Cody immediately wins over not only Mudge but the audience. The pint-size thesp has made a mark as a dancer-singer, beginning with a memorable turn in Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party” and including last season’s “The Pajama Game.” (She also recently made the papers — news and legal — as director of an Akron, Ohio, production of “Urinetown” being accused of plagiarism.)
Here, Cody is two-dimensional in the best sense of the word. When she kicks, her legs seem to spring out sideways like a cartoon character; you can almost see cartoonist’s lines inked in as she moves. She sings, dances and is extremely funny, bringing to mind Kristin Chenoweth’s Tony-winning turn in the 1999 revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” — except Cody seems to be playing Sally, Patty and Lucy simultaneously.
The show is in good shape from Cody’s belated entrance on — following a song aptly entitled “Annie’s on Her Way” — and thereafter is pure joy.
The trouble comes earlier. Composer Brian Lowdermilk and lyricist-librettist Kait Kerrigan demonstrate songwriting talent that presumably extends to adult musical theater, and most of “Henry and Mudge” is very nice indeed. But there are stretches in this plot-lite hour where the authors seem to be treading water.
Fortunately, director Peter Flynn demonstrates a skilled hand. The sketchy storybook scenery by Paul C. Weimer, the colorful costumes by Rob Bevenger, the effective lights (including a series of effects for the dark forest) by Jeff Croiter and the amusingly clever choreography by Devanand Janki — all are well contrived and cannily combined.
Outfitted in a furry sweater and long tail, Buonopane makes a toothsome and cuddly bundle of canine. In the books, Mudge is of the non-talking variety; here, the authors choose to give him dialogue, which is clearly understood by the other characters. He sings, too, and cavorts around the stage in search of a hug, a bug or a doggy snack.
Boll and Hess give winning perfs as Henry’s parents. Not so successful is Morales, who seems at least 20 years too old for Henry. Not helping is the tattoo on his upper arm, which from time to time peeks out from under his short sleeves. (Cody is perhaps older than Morales, but she comes across as a perfect precocious brat.) Morales’ performance is adequate, but more is needed; he is overshadowed at every turn by the girl and the dog.
Even so, Cody, Buonopane, Flynn and Janki keep “Henry and Mudge” moving, with enough moments of hilarity to enthrall its young audience. There’s also a final tug at the heartstrings, which winds up things nicely indeed.