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The Rolling Stone, DogMan The Musical

Posted 7/22/19

Rolling Stone reviewed  by Fern Siegel for    In Uganda, where evangelical religion is married to homophobia, Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) goes looking for love in all the wrong places. Specifically, with Sam (Robert Gilbert), a charming Irish doctor, the son of a Ugandan woman. Sam is resolute in his passions, while Dembe is acutely aware of the dangerous nature of their relationship.

Now at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Rolling Stone reveals it is life and death.

The local Kampala paper publishes the names, addresses and photos of men accused of homosexuality. In fact, the show is based on the name of a Ugandan tabloid that in 2010, the year the play takes place, published the names of 100 presumed gay men. The headline read “Hang Them” — and one gay rights activist was killed in his home.

That is the backdrop to Demme and Sam’s illicit affair. The laws against homosexuality are severe, while the religious condemnation by Pastor Joe (James Udom) is intense.

Demme, Joe’s brother, greets his impassioned rants with a mixture of horror and fear. Demme looks for mercy and solace in religion; Joe’s muscular Christianity is focused on destroying what he views as tainted souls. He’s joined in his bigotry by Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), a family friend who hates gays and has put Joe in his current church post. “These people recruit, rape and spread disease,” she cries, sounding just like the American evangelicals who exported the hatred she embraces.  

Anyone labeled a “kuchu” is in mortal danger in Uganda. So when Sam finds that word scrawled on his bathroom wall, it’s time to consider alternatives. 

But can Demme leave a country and a family he loves? The emotional sacrifice would be acute. He and his sister Wummie (Laytoya Edwards), close since childhood, are both headed for medical school. Yet when family finances prove wanting, Joe insists sparse resources are earmarked for their brother.

His sexism is as vile as his homophobia. The problem — the execution of key themes is more surface than serious, particularly in act one. Terrible things happen around the family — but it isn’t until act two that hard realities — and hypocrisies — hit home, and Rolling Stone shifts into high gear. The ties that bind are put to the ultimate test.

Do Joe and Wimmie know the truth about their brother? Can someone rant in public, but protect a family member in private? Playwright Chris Urch grapples with such serious questions — and is blessed with a talented ensemble to explore them.

Each performer mines his/her role for its heartache, and Rolling Stone addresses the cruelties and ironies of faith in an earnest way. The sets by Arnulfo Maldonado are simple — an abstract wire backdrop on a clay-colored stage. Saheem Ali directs a strong cast with few visuals. Japhy Weideman lighting and Justin Ellington’s original music and sound nicely render time and place.

The bottom line is clear: Demme and Joe cannot choose to be other than they are, and that dichotomy ups the emotional stakes. Morality, belief and love — it’s all on the line. These real-life issues are searing — and Rolling Stone delivers a provocative and disquieting production.

On the kid front, it’s all humor and good triumphing over cartoon evil. Dav Pilkey’s best selling “Dog Man” series is now a delightful musical comedy at the Lucille Lortel. The Dog Man-The Musical creators, lyricist Kevin Del Aguila and composer Brad Alexander, have done well by Pilkey, who also created “Captain Underpants.”  

The “Dog Man” books follow the adventures of the title character — an injured police dog sewn onto the body of an injured police officer. He’s his own best friend!

The premise is sweet: Best friends George (Forest VanDyke) and Harold (Dan Rosales) want to pen a musical about Dog Man, their favorite comic-book character. While their teacher assures them musicals are hard, they tackle the show with a humorous can-do spirit and a melodic, upbeat pop score.

Fighting crime is Dog Man’s (Brian Owen) forte, so when Petey the cat (a wonderful Jamie Laverdiere) plots evil destruction, and the city is attacked by Flippy the bionic fish (Crystal Sha’nae), he answers the call.

The plot line is adapted from “Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties,” where Petey clones himself, only to discover that Li’l Petey  (L.R. Davidson) is a cutie pie and crime doesn’t pay. Tim Mackabee’s spot-on sets are colorful, as are Heidi Leigh Handon’s costumes. Jen Wieman lively direction ensures both her wonderful cast and audience has fun.  —Fern Siegel