Come — sit — stay” is the tagline on the artwork of “Tails,” the new Off Broadway “five-dog musical.” Maybe you can make audiences come, with enough advertising dollars; and tickets in hand, they are sure to sit. But how, pray tell, are you gonna make ’em stay?
Plot gets rolling when a scrappy young dog rolls into the pound. Ozzie has a black eye, a bandaged arm and a nibbled ear; here’s a mutt with a secret, no doubt, but the suspense is minimal. Each of the dogs, over 90-odd minutes, relates the details of happy homelife and events that led them to this gated community. Or, rather, fenced community.
In each case, actors absent the stage (to do doggy business), allowing them to re-enter in hats and sweaters playing the dog owners. One nice, one mean, one crazed, one transferred and one plain dead.
Meanwhile, a deli-counter machine clicks on until their pre-assigned number is up and it’s off to that kennel in the sky. It all comes down to this: Play tricks for the (unseen) customers hoping to adopt, or else!
“Tails” is the first completed musical by composer Jess Platt and lyricist-librettist Mark Masi. They have clearly tried to come up with a melodic musical that is, in their own words, “warm but wildly irreverent, funny, hopeful and optimistic.” Earnest, but overly hopeful and unreasonably optimistic is the result.
The score, played by a pianist and another musician on numerous wind instruments, does not provide much of a lift. At least three numbers harken back to the sound of Schmidt and Jones (“The Fantasticks”); one song — a fairly nice one, interestingly harmonized — seemingly builds on that other animal tune, “Little Lamb”; and one rouser (“Show Dog”) is very much in the Jerry Herman vein. “I was a hooker,” says one dog. “I could get things off hooks.” Now there’s a song cue for you. Funniest line — “our dogs are trained to attack at the sound of a cell phone” — comes before the show, when it doesn’t do much good.
Youngest dog is played with requisite charm by Miguel Cervantes (apparently not the novelist). Bethe Austin offers some moments of believability in the flashback when her owner dies, but this is the sort of show where you sit there feeling embarrassed for the hard-working actors, singing their lines and doing doggie hoedowns.
Director-choreographer Christopher Scott’s staging is spare, sets are minimal, costumes are basic.
Lest you think this is a kid-friendly musical, be reminded that the dogs are on line to be fried. In this, there is a parallel to — of all things — Sartre’s “No Exit,” with a group of characters in a waiting room, dreading the great unknown on the other side of the door. Unanswered question: Why does the youngest, newest-to-arrive dog have the lowest number of the group while at least two of the others are clearly on their last (four) legs?
So looking at the bright side, let us simply say that “Tails” has the existential essence of Sartre. Here there is purgatory, and here there is no exit.