Space Dogs

'Space Dogs' review — ambitious musical doesn't quite reach the stars

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

If a pair of eager-beaver performances and cute overload were enough to make Space Dogs achieve orbit, then this new Off-Broadway musical about canines' ill-starred role in a Cold War throwdown, written by and starring Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire, could be categorized as out-of-this-world. 

But no. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know it takes more, including songs you want to hear again and a narrative with a strong point of view, smarts, and a surprise or two. As is, the show gets tugged into a black hole of Wayne's World-worthy one-note jokiness and Saturday morning cartoon-style songs. Although it's hard to knock a show for ambition, this one tries to do
too much and goes slack as it moves forward and periodically punctures the fourth wall. 

"I'm Nick," declares Blaemire (Glory Days). "I'm Van," echoes Hughes (Deaf West's Spring Awakening). "And we wrote this!" Yes, they did. And they work their tails off to win the audience over. They act, sing, and play keyboard and guitars to share their take on the true story of hapless pooches trained by Russian scientists in the 1950s to beat the United States in the Space Race. The pop-rock opening number, "Space Dogs of the Cosmodrome," makes this repeatedly, abundantly clear.

The MCC Theater production gets off the ground with a blast of fluffy showmanship. The performers hurl three dozen stuffed dogs into theatregoers' hands, introducing each beast by name: "Tsygan! Blackie! Linda! Little Star!" Last but not least is the show's four-legged focus: Soviet lab mutt Laika, a stray plucked from the streets of Moscow who became a famous pioneering space pooch.

Laika has popped up in pop culture for decades. Her tragic journey serves as a heart-tugging metaphor in the 1985 movie My Life as a Dog. The musical imagines the betrayed bond between Laika (Blaemire, manning a prop pup) and a secret Soviet scientist called the Chief Designer (Hughes, whose accent recalls Dracula), who had Nikita Khrushchev on his back for results. On stage, Laika journals about her misadventures: "Dear Diary: It's scary when we whirl around in circles real fast, in the simulator, they call it."

And it got worse. She was aboard the historic Sputnik 2 when it launched into low orbit in November 1957. It was a one-way excursion, not a round trip. Soviet scientists never considered a way to get Laika back down to Earth. She expired, presumably in agony, in an overheated heap.

For decades after the historic mission, Soviets claimed Laika died peacefully. In 2002, the truth came out in declassified documents. It's fertile territory to explore science versus ethics and man's inhumanity to man's best friend. The show contents itself with chasing shallow laughs.

The story also observes what U.S. researchers were up to at Cape Canaveral and beyond. Not-so-hidden figures including Lyndon B. Johnson and Wernner von Braun, a German weapons specialist turned U.S. rocket man, show up. In a brief but genuinely funny cameo, Ivan Pavlov also appears to cue "A Brief History of Dogs," a song whose title speaks for itself. 

Director Ellie Heyman wraps the show up in a production packed with puppets, green screens, video, projection and lighting effects, and costume tricks. In the end, the 90-minute Space Dogs feels like an overextended idea in this full-length form. It might shine brighter as a show of a more compact breed.

Space Dogs is at MCC Theater through March 13. Get Space Dogs tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes in Space Dogs. (Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez)

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