"Have you seen Harry?" his frantic owner Girl (Hannah Wolfe) desperately asks the children in the audience after her beloved dog escapes under the family's white-picket fence to avoid a dreaded, though much-needed, bath. Preschoolers' eyes search the theater in earnest. There are several places Harry could be hiding in the interactive children's village that serves as a stage for Harry's many adventures. Wide-eyed toddlers in the front row stare eagerly at a large, green fire hydrant their hands are itching to touch, while those seated two rows behind them struggle to conceal Harry's dog friends in a game of hide and seek.
Eventually, everyone sitting in the audience will become part of the story in Harry the Dirty Dog, playing at the Manhattan Children's Theatre. The theater, which specializes in staging clever and intelligent plays for toddlers, proudly displays this John Adams quote in its playbill: "I must study politics and war so that my children may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy...in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, and music."
Glancing around a theater decorated with towering cardboard bakeries, banks, and supermarkets that parents and children are encouraged to explore, you realize how touchingly appropriate this quote is for theatergoers of all ages.
In the moments before the show starts, the theater is a virtual madhouse of over-stimulated preschoolers melting from their seats to the floor, spilling juice on nearby scenery, or fighting with their parents in the stands for a snack. However, once Harry the dog, played with captivating energy by Emily Hartford, rolls across the stage howling, barking, and declaring his love for all things smelly, every child looks on in riveted silence. When Harry plays in traffic against the narrator's (Heather Platt) recommendation, she asks the children in the stands, "Can you make sounds like a car horn to warn Harry?" They instantly and passionately oblige.
Their concern for Harry's welfare does not end there. As Harry roams farther from home, the young audience provides him with frog noises, crashing ocean waves, and street-drilling sounds. Still oblivious to danger, Harry happily tromps across railroad tracks as toddlers join the actors in creating a slightly disorderly human train around the village, which they are reluctant to break once the scene ends. In several instances, parents sheepishly leave their seats to pull their spellbound children from the actors' sides to their own.
As Harry's hygiene continues to decline, Hartford's white-Velcro dog suit becomes adorned with brown and black cloth and a scarf made of seaweed. "Tell Harry he's a dirty dog," the narrator encourages the children, who respond in genuine horror; "Harry is a dirty dog!" Their horror is matched by Harry's owners when he returns home so dirty that no one recognizes him. Desperate for his old life back, Harry concedes to getting into the tub as the classic Bobby Darin song "Splish Splash (I'm Taking a Bath)" blasts from speakers.
Harry the Dirty Dog is a truly inspired play, so creative in delivery that even adults can appreciate the art they are witnessing as the story unfolds. The scenery expertly creates the illusion of stepping from the bustling streets of cramped downtown Manhattan into a storybook where everything is colorful and there is enough room on the sidewalk for everyone.
Manhattan Children's Theatre clearly understands the importance of children's theater. It doesn't talk down to its small viewers but instead recognizes and respects them as the young minds that, if properly inspired by such productions, can grow into the actors, writers, poets, and reviewers of tomorrow.