Rarely do two acts differ so much in content and quality as in the new musical Call of the Wild at Olney Theatre Center. After a difficult and challenging first act, the work is redeemed by a terrific second.
The first act is based on Jack London’s novel “Call of the Wild.” His human hero, Weedon Scott (Evan Casey), sells his beloved dogs Buck (James Gardiner) and Queenie (Judith Ingber) to finance his trip to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. The remainder of the story is told largely from the perspective of these animals and other dogs who are used and abused by a succession of human masters.
In an opening that may confuse audience members unfamiliar with London’s work, the play deals with whether the dogs should consider their human masters as “gods” or just “meat.” As the dogs fall under the authority of a series of cruel and damaged owners in harsh Arctic conditions, it is not surprising that they eventually lose faith in humanity and succumb to wild instincts.
While the first act seems faithful to the source material, it is difficult for the audience. The story, while enlivened by a strong performance by William Diggle as Spitz, the alpha sled dog that Buck must eventually challenge, nevertheless is unrelenting in its grim nature, . The limitations of dog dialogue and the succession of short-lived greedy and selfish human masters leave the audience feeling uninvolved. At the close of Act I, Buck mates with a She-wolf (Gwynne Flanagan) and gives birth to a half-wolf puppy White Fang (Kieran Welsh-Phillips).
The far more satisfying second act, based on London’s story “White Fang”, has all of the virtues that the first act lacks: an interesting relationship between White Fang and Weedon Scot, a more varied plot, and some variations in tone and pace. Welcome relief is provided by an entertaining performance by Joe Peck as a fighting English bull dog named Lord Albert and a fun comic number by James Gardiner (Straggletooth) and Gwynne Flanagan (Fleabait) as they implore White Fang to “Be Our Queen.”
Kieran Welsh-Phillips gives a terrific performance as White Fang, the most convincing canine in the piece. Her character’s bond with Weedon Scott gives the story its heart. In the final confrontation with the villain of the piece (a convincingly harsh Jim Zidar), the love between the two has the audience rooting for the pair.
Under the guidance of Director Clay Hoper and Movement Director Leslie Felbain, the canine characters effectively portray a variety of activities, including pulling a sled and engaging in some convincing fights. Their musical performances are adequate, although the cast lacks any real standout vocalists.
The original musical score effectively summons the proper moods, from the haunting “Song of the Spirit Dog” to the more upbeat “The Arctic Rose” and “Beggars Will Ride.” While you may not leave the production humming any of the numbers, you will feel involved while they are sung. Musical Director Christopher Youstra helps the five-piece orchestra achieve a nice variety of sounds that closely connect to the action on stage.
Call of the Wild is an interesting production with several entertaining performances. While the creative team may not have fully worked out the challenges of the piece, fans of new musicals may want to check it out.
Note: No age recommendation is included on the website, but due to violence and language, I would recommend junior high school and up.
Call of the Wild
Based on works by Jack London
Book and Lyrics by Jon Lipsky
Music by Bill Barclay
Directed by Clay Hopper
Presented by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.