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‘Dog Man’ musical brings joy — and toned-down potty humor — to Kirk Douglas Theatre

Six performers practice a dance with jazz hands.
The full ensemble of “Dog Man: The Musical” rehearses the show at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theater.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
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He has the head of a dog and the body of a cop. His name is Dog Man. If you’re a parent of a child under 10, you know all about this oddball character and his bestselling series of 11 eponymous books by “Captain Underpants” author Dav Pilkey. If you’re not a parent, pop some Champagne and celebrate your precarious freedom. Dog Man may come for you soon enough.

Pilkey’s comic book universe of mischievous children, talking toilets, villainous cats, zombie lunch ladies, potty humor and the aforementioned cop with a dog’s head sewn onto his body is as ubiquitous as peanut butter and jelly to many families. So it comes as little surprise that Pilkey’s oeuvre has expanded to include “Dog Man: The Musical,” now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.

What is surprising, however, is that this production has forsaken the Pilkey poop jokes that delight devilish kids, and doubled down on the empathy, creativity, friendship and warmth that underpin the material and make parents glad of their children’s obsession. Not only does Pilkey inspire kids to read, his work now is making them clamor for live theater. It’s a win-win for an author with enormous influence over children worldwide.

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Ellie Berger, president of Scholastic Trade Publishing, wrote in an email that since “Dog Man” debuted seven years ago, the series has more than 60 million copies in print, with translations in 45 languages.

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“Each book in the ‘Dog Man’ series has hit the No. 1 spot on bestseller lists around the world,” she wrote. “In terms of comparison (Scholastic is also the publisher of many popular series for kids and teens including ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘Goosebumps,’ etc.), there isn’t anything in the industry that has achieved this kind of success in a short amount of time.”

TheaterWorksUSA, which strives to bring Broadway-level theater and arts education to children and underserved communities, developed the show, which staged its first workshop in 2019 and has since performed in cities across the country and in Australia.

A smiling man and a woman in a beanie with cat ears pop their heads out of a polka dot curtain.
Brian Owen, top, as Dog Man, and L.R. Davidson as Li’l Petey pose for a portrait before a rehearsal for “Dog Man: The Musical.”
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Director and choreographer Jen Wineman said TheaterWorks artistic director Barbara Pasternack first approached Pilkey about dramatizing his “Captain Underpants” series, which is about a mean-spirited elementary school principal who gets transformed into a tighty-whities-wearing hero by two fourth-grade boys, best friends George and Harold.

But Wineman said Pilkey demurred.

“There’s not really a way to have a grown man in underwear onstage and have it be what you want it to be,” said Wineman with a wry smile, adding that Pilkey instead suggested Pasternack consider his “Dog Man” series. Shortly thereafter, Pasternack recruited longtime TheaterWorks collaborators Kevin Del Aguila (book and lyrics) and Brad Alexander (music).

Both men recalled being thrilled at the offer since they are fathers to young boys who are, of course, devoted fans of the material.

“My jaw just dropped to the floor,” said Alexander. “Of the thousands of kid-book titles she could have mentioned, I could not believe she said ‘Dog Man.’”

Del Aguila’s son broke down all the essential facts of the books for his dad, and a direction soon became clear. They decided to base the musical around the third book in the series, “Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties,” and instead of having George and Harold attempt to draw a “Dog Man” comic book, as they do in the source material, they would now try to stage a “Dog Man” musical before lunch.

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Pilkey generously gave the theater makers carte blanche to do as they pleased, which was both unexpected and refreshing, Del Aguila said. Alexander recalled Pilkey saying that he didn’t want to micromanage their efforts because he worried it would curtail their best ideas.

Reached via email, Pilkey wrote, “Kevin Del Aguila and Brad Alexander are brilliant and could make anything into a truly enjoyable musical. It is a perfect adaptation of the ‘Dog Man’ books. It’s hard to pick a favorite part because I loved the entire musical.”

The only stipulation Pilkey gave the creators early on, said Wineman, was that Dog Man should never speak or sing — which is in lockstep with the book, and could be considered a bit of a pickle when it comes to the needs of a musical. The team, however, took the mandate in stride.

Brian Owen, who has played Dog Man from the beginning, said the audition email instructed him to act like a dog in various situations.

“I have the brilliant idea that I’m gonna hide my camera in the corner of the room and surprise my wife while she was working, and hop on her lap. And it’s gonna be a great usable audition tape,” said Owen, laughing. “And she really yelled at me, like, ‘What are you doing?!’”

Even without the singing, Owen loves the role. “It was this invitation into this amazing world of creative and imaginative play,” he said.

A man in orange and black stripes and a woman in a costume that looks like a ball with long ribbed arms and legs.

L.R. Davidson, right, with Bryan Daniel Porter, said part of what makes the show special is “the number of children and parents who have reached out to us online whose kids go home and try to create the props from the show to make their own version because they’re so inspired.”
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
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Over the years the team has become incredibly close, bonded by the experience of bringing joy and inspiration to excited children, said L.R. Davidson, who plays Li’l Petey, a sweet orange kitten who is the clone/”son” of the book’s dastardly and misunderstood antagonist, Petey.

“We have a special board backstage that we call the ‘fan board,’ and we’ll post all the photos and drawings that are sent to us because we love that,” she said. “That’s part of what makes this piece so special: the number of children and parents who have reached out to us online whose kids go home and try to create the props from the show to make their own version because they’re so inspired.”

According to the “Dog Man” team, the kids aren’t just inspired, they‘re ecstatic. They come in costume with the books clutched to their chests. They ask the actors to sign homemade comic books. They shout out lines from the books and shake a leg during “Robo-Dance Party.”

When the troupe was set to perform for 100-plus second-graders at New World Stages in New York City, the show was delayed for five minutes by a late school bus, and the entire audience of youngsters erupted in a spontaneous chant of, “Dog Man, Dog Man, Dog Man!”

“Like it was a rock concert or something,” said Del Aguila. “It was amazing.”

'Dog Man: The Musical'

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Until Jan. 7, 2024
Tickets: Starting at $35
Info: centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 90 minutes

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