According to the new musical Space Dogs, now playing at MCC, the unsung heroes at the center of the space race were the 40-some dogs sent into space by the Soviets. But that simple description grossly underplays the inventive wackiness of this two-man show, in which Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire explore a historical footnote with refreshing originality and humor.
There’s a touch of “Horrible Histories” about Space Dogs—the show’s approach to the past is reminiscent of the British children’s-book series that makes the past palatable by playing up its funny side. For one thing, the eponymous “canine cosmonauts” are portrayed by a clutch of stuffed animal puppets, designed by Amanda Villalobos and voiced by the versatile and endearing Hughes and Blaemire. (The pair also composed and play all the music, which spans style and periods from 1970s glam rock to country and more, on a keyboard, a selection of guitars, and a xylophone.) An opening stunt with the stuffed dogs requires audience participation and serves to set the jolly tone for the evening. The puppet dogs appear in various guises and sizes, including an ingenious pop up “dog dormitory” where the four-legged recruits get to know each other. For all its fun and silliness, the show will appeal to all age groups and seems to have timely resonance now that tensions with Russia over Ukraine are dominating the headlines.
Based on the true story of Laika, the first dog and first living creature to reach Earth’s orbit (onboard Sputnik 2 in 1957), the show pits the secretive Soviet scientists against NASA’s best. At one point, a spy’s mistranslation of U.S. plans accelerates the Soviets’ space program unnecessarily. The incident is played here for laughs, but also points to how history sometimes turns on mistakes.
The other main character, alongside Laika, is the Chief Designer, whose identity was classified until long after the space dog program came to an end. Hughes plays the Chief Designer, and also Lyndon B. Johnson, the American face of the space program. Blaemire voices Laika and also plays a dizzying array of supporting roles, from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to former Nazi Wernher von Braun, who was recruited to turbo-charge the U.S. moon shot. A rousing hip-hop number explains von Braun’s role with Blaemire dressed in a leather trench goat and goggles (costume design is by Haydee Zelideth Antuñano).
The action unfolds against a backdrop of giant speakers (perhaps a visual super-woofer pun?), on which are projected visuals that help propel the narrative. The set design by Wilson Chin, lighting by Mary Ellen Stebbens, and projections by Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch make the most of the small space, with the actors popping out from unexpected places to great effect. Among the striking projections is a montage of dog photos—like a massive Instagram feed—to explain how the dogs were “recruited” from strays rounded up in Moscow. It’s a cute but also hilarious nod to our pet obsessed era. Live cameras are also employed intermittently to amplify the drama and convey the global nature of the story.
While there’s much to love in this show, the Soviet side of the story gets most of the jokes and airtime. As such, the American part of the narrative falls slightly flat in comparison—or is that just the effect of the comedic Russian accents? The story also seems to lose a little momentum once Laika reaches orbit. The writers have tried to capture the mixed feelings the scientists had about sending the pooches into space, but the sentimental finale falls a little flat after the energy and verve of the earlier scenes.