Anyone who’s ever truly loved a dog knows how quickly they seem to go from adorable, clumsy young ‘uns to crotchety old curmudgeons. One day they’re sniffing endless butts down at the dog park and the next they’re needing a little set of steps to get up on the furniture (come on, once they’re that old they deserve to recline in comfort).

Inevitably, we have to watch once-spry pups pass out of our lives, leaving us with the residue of millions of wet-nosed kisses and more than a few nagging existential questions.

“When we choose to get a dog, we’re choosing pain,” says Paddy Mahoney Bell, the Camden, S.C.-based playwright behind Dogs: The Musical, which makes its debut as a full-length production at this year’s Piccolo Spoleto. “We know they’re going to leave before we want them to, because their lives go so much faster.”

While the name of the play might sound like a satirical take on another, slightly more well-known musical that centers on the “Memories” and misadventures of four-legged domesticated animals portrayed by humans, the surprisingly earnest Dogs: The Musical had a somewhat more inauspicious beginning. In 1998, Bell bid farewell to Emerson, a rescued dog she and her husband Rick nursed back from the brink of death.

“They were going to put him down the first night he came in, but he ended up being with us for seven years,” Bell says. “Every day of those seven years he was, in whatever way he could, trying to say thank you.”

About six months after Emerson passed away, Bell, who has an interdisciplinary studies degree from the University of South Carolina, found herself channeling her grief into poetic tributes to her miracle mongrel.

Little did Bell know that the first poem she wrote for Emerson, “Seven Years as Fast,” would eventually turn into the powerful emotional apex of Dogs, as a solo sung by the city-trapped, ex-farm dog KD McLady (Lisa Odom).

After being advised by family and friends to “do something with [the poems],” Bell started working with the show’s musical arranger and composer, Dick Goodwin, a distinguished professor emeritus at USC and the 2001 recipient of S.C.’s prestigious Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Individual Artist Award who also plays with both a touring jazz quintet and a big band.

Goodwin helped Bell shape the poems into the memorable, alternately touching and funny songs like “Collar/Leash Tango” and “Are You My Brother?” that are the heart of Dogs. The ensemble cast includes a lost young pup named Shadow (Will Shuler) and his Falstaffian mentor, Emerson (portrayed by Dogs director Jerry Stevenson), as they mingle with street mutts like Hogan O’Grogan (Cameron Mitchell Bell) and pampered house poodles like Gypsy Rose Flea (Charleston actress Kristin Abbott).

While Bell admits that Dogs is “not what anyone would call a literary script,” its moving songs and colorful characters will delight dog lovers young and old. But not too young: Bell wants to make sure that parents of young children know that “dog language is rich, and dog material is rich,” and while the difficult issues Dogs deals with — homelessness, abuse, death, social injustice — are dog-specific in the show, “we’re really talking about the human condition.

“Ultimately, I hope people in the theatre keep saying to themselves, ‘Is this show about dogs or is it about people?'” Bell says. “Then I will have succeeded in what I’m trying to do.”

(The cast and crew of Dogs: The Musical, including Bell and Goodwin, will host a Yappy Hour to raise money for a local animal charity on Wed. May 30 at 6 p.m. at Red’s Icehouse in Mt. Pleasant.) —Sara Miller

Dogs: The Musical • Piccolo Spoleto’s Theatre Series • $25, $22 seniors and students • (2 hours) • May 31, June 4, 7, 9 at 9 p.m.; June 1, 4, 8, 9 at 3 p.m.; June 3 at 5 p.m.; June 10 at noon • Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St. • 554-6060

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