Theater review by Raven Snook
Like the canine cosmonaut at the heart of the two-man musical Space Dogs, Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire want to be loved. In recounting the story of Laika, the stray pooch chosen by the Soviets in 1957 to become the first living creature to orbit the Earth, the writer-performers give us everything in their arsenal: projections, live feeds, puppy puppets, goofy props and broad characterizations, a pastiche pop-rock score with plentiful harmonies. But it's hard to share their obsession with this outer-space waggy-dog tale.
Broadway vets and multi-instrumentalists with lovely voices, Hughes and Blaemire are a talented pair. The show begins promisingly as they launch stuffed toy dogs into the audience and set up the story with the Bowie-style earworm "The Space Dogs of the Cosmodrome." Hughes portrays the Chief Designer, a key figure in the Space Race who bonds with his pup pioneer; Blaemire portrays Laika, and the two trade off as everyone else. The parallels between designer and dog are established bluntly: They have both had rough lives that have left them alone and starved for love. But while she may be this man's best friend, he betrays her to grasp at the stratosphere.
Hughes and Blaemire's cheeky, high-energy approach never wavers. They sing 18 eclectic tunes and rocket through director Ellie Heyman's agitated stage business, never giving the characters or the audience a chance to breathe—or to feel the impact of the story’s sweet-bitter journey. Looking into the eyes of the real-life Soviet space dogs in a small exhibit of photographs in front of the theater only underscores the musical's glibness. Hughes and Blaemire seem to genuinely adore that history was changed by dogs, but the show is all lark and no bite.
Space Dogs. MCC Theater (Off Broadway). Book, music and lyrics by Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire. Directed by Ellie Heyman. With Hughes, Blaemire. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.