'Space Dogs' review: To boldly go where no dog has gone before

We are in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. The Soviets and Americans are racing into space, and the Soviets have gotten ahead by la...


We are in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. The Soviets and Americans are racing into space, and the Soviets have gotten ahead by launching the first man-made object into Earth orbit. Next goal on the horizon: send a man into space. But before that, there was Laika, a stray dog ​​from Moscow who was the sole living occupant of the Sputnik 2 spacecraft, which circled the Earth. Sputnik eventually fell from space, but Laika did not survive the trip.

Now, Laika has been resurrected as the subject of a tasteless new musical, “Space Dogs,” an MCC Theater production that opened Sunday and stars its creators, Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes.

Directed by Ellie Heyman, “Space Dogs” tells the story of Laika, the best-known of the dogs that Soviet scientists trained for space travel. In this account, a scientist known by the code name Chief Designer spearheaded this initiative.

Parts of the show are told from Laika’s perspective, from dog journal entries and songs (Laika is played by a plush who is primarily manipulated and voiced by Blaemire). Other parts come from the point of view of the lead designer, played by Hughes. The rest of the scenes break the fourth wall, providing historical and political context. It’s informative, in a sloppy way, but also hopelessly cheesy, filled with dad jokes, puns, silly accents, and even a dog beauty contest. “Space Dogs” gives off the vibe of a B-grade educational children’s show – albeit with occasional vulgarity amid the dark material.

A strangely catchy song recounts how the chief designer, “driven by a void in the center of his chest”, to use a cliché from the series, was imprisoned in the gulag and tortured at the height of Stalin’s rule. And while no dogs were harmed in the making of this show, there are canine casualties and grim existential reflections from the four-legged friends. Other than the Bowie-esque chorus and spoken word of “Fill the Void,” and the alternating soft acoustic chords and heavy strumming of “Blessed by Two Great Oceans,” most of the musical’s songs are fairly even. stylistically and generically optimistic – bouncy but forgettable numbers that contribute little to the story.

“Space Dogs” also telegraphs Pixar-level grief through some slick tunes. “What if I die? What if I fell from the sky? Laika sings, and later sings from beyond the grave of her dashed hopes of having a family and a delicious steak. It’s emotionally manipulative, especially for the soft-hearted animal lovers in the audience. The show then has to walk a difficult line between a celebration of Laika and her canine colleagues (“History was changed by dogs!” the two actors declare) and a commentary on the ambitions of two countries on the brink of mutual annihilation.

Hughes and Blaemire attack their material with such enthusiasm; their seriousness is palpable, even taking into account the cheesiness of the book and their imperfect voice (the songs they wrote fit their scope and abilities).

The rest of the production looks set to eclipse the two stars and their story. Wilson Chin’s scenic design is compact and cluttered, full of drawers and speakers of various shapes and sizes stacked together Tetris-style alongside Soviet and American flags. Amanda Villalobos has some fabulous puppet and prop designs that unfortunately aren’t highlighted until the final third of the show.

The lighting design (Mary Ellen Stebbins) is the boldest, full of neon lights and strobes. Projections, green screens and live cameras also feature prominently, and while the lights and skyscapes are dazzling, all of these together provide an often overwhelming glut of visual information.

What would my own dog think of such a spectacle, I wondered as I left the theater. I bet he prefers to keep his feet on the ground.

space dogs
Through March 13 at the MCC Theater, Manhattan; mcctheater.org. Duration: 1h30.

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