Setting 'Call of the Wild' To Song Is a Real Howler
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
How do you turn Jack London's "Call of the Wild" into a musical without making it the canine equivalent of "Cats"? In a premiere at the Olney Theatre Center, the unsatisfying answer is to turn it into a Brechtian epic, with unsavory saloon characters delivering the audience a lesson we had better learn -- or else.
"Fresh meat," the actors murmur to one another, casting hungry glances at the patrons. Checking the impulse to annihilate the crowd on the spot, they decide to tell London's tale of survival during the Yukon gold rush, largely from the point of view of the dogs.
"Call of the Wild" is a brutal tale of instinct and survival, and director Clay Hopper cracks the whip on his highly disciplined ensemble. Actors sporting bits of fur and leather (boots, hats, vests) convincingly suggest sled dogs mushing through the snow, leaping and pulling forward in unison thanks to what the program cites as Leslie Felbain's "movement direction" (not choreography, mind you). The aggressiveness is daunting, accentuated by occasional violent sounds of lashings and clubbings supplied by the cast.
The impressive physical work, though, can't mask a composition that often stalls in the ruts of cliches. As Jon Lipsky's book freely reworks both "Call of the Wild" and London's "White Fang," singers bellow robust tunes with wilted lyrics: "Out here there are no rules/Sailing on a ship of fools/Got no future, got no past/And every day might be your last."
More banalities sung: "What don't kill you makes you stronger/Play with fire and you get burned." Indeed, Lipsky gets singed by transforming London's terse prose into ready-made phrases, to say nothing of the adaptation's heavy-handed framing device and relentless moralizing about dogs, gods and civility. The credibility of the writing is rapidly shot.
Musically, composer Bill Barclay works with the idea of frontier sound, using barroom piano, fiddle tunes and guitar. Along with stentorian choral anthems of warning and percussion-driven dogfights (the show's signature sounds), he pens some respectable ballads and thankfully doesn't overwork the howls.
But Barclay doesn't have much luck matching London's story to less expected musical idioms -- the subtle funk for the mean dog Spitz, for example, and the gospel that drives home the themes of love and redemption. These experiments fizzle, and most egregious is an attempt at comic vaudeville that is pointlessly crude, thanks again to sour lyrics.
"Call of the Wild," then, is mainly a show about the staging, and the actors take to it with unbridled conviction. Performances to admire include Jim Zidar's snide, imposing turn as the dog abuser Beauty Smith, Stephen Schmidt's enjoyable French caricature as the sled driver Francois and the warrior-quality work of Kieran Welsh-Phillips's feral White Fang. This is a serious cast, extremely well-drilled and playing splendidly together, even though they're bounding through mush.
Call of the Wild, music by Bill Barclay, book and lyrics by Jon Lipsky. Directed by Clay Hopper. Scenic designer, Jeremy W. Foil; lights, Nicholas Houfek; costumes, Pei Lee; sound design, Jarett C. Pisani. With Evan Casey, Gwynne Flanagan, James Gardiner, Judith Ingber, Deborah Lubega, Joe Peck, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Andrew Sonntag and William Diggle. About 2 1/2 hours.