Hits The Spot(s)
By R. J. Donovan
Sometimes you see the description "family musical" and you just want to cringe. Because, with all due respect, some so-called "family musicals" pander, blatantly, to the kids in the audience, serving up screaming, over the top performances that leave the adults in the house counting the minutes until the final curtain mercifully falls.
Happily, "101 Dalmatians: The Musical" is not in that category. In a brief Christmas stop at The Wang, the production was bright and fun, populated by a cast of sharp Broadway professionals, half of whom play humans and half of whom play dalmatians. That alone might set the cringe barometer a twitter, but the canine players -- adults and kids alike -- pulled it off with style and class.
Unlike the puppetry of "Lion King" or the exaggerated costuming of "Cats," the "Dalmatians" are all dressed very simply in bright, white slacks, sweaters, shirts, jeans, and sneakers, all with appropriate black spot markings.
So, is there anyone who doesn't know the story of "101 Dalmatians?" The setting is London, in the home of The Dearlys, who own two dalmatians, Pongo and Misses Pongo. When the loving canines have a litter, the dastardly Cruella de Vil ("I Woooooorship Fur!") schemes to steal the pups and turn their tiny pelts into coats. (Horrors!)
De Vil arranges the kidnapping of the pups, adding them to a houseful of other pooches she's already snatched. When Pongo and Misses get wind of what's happened, they set off in search of their missing kids, with the help of practically every other dog in England. Of course, everyone's reunited by the final curtain and Cruella gets her comeuppance.
The stage show cleverly presents an upside-down version of the world -- as seen from a dog's point of view -- where the canines own the people, who are gentle, obedient and unusually intelligent.
To that end, there's a visual illusion from Scenic Designer Heidi Ettinger and Costume Designer Paul Gallo that keeps the humans physically larger than the dogs. The "human" actors all wear stilts beneath their costumes, the furniture is all oversized and the set pieces are designed to provide a receding perspective. Thus, the dogs seem normal-sized (to us) in a world that appears to tower above them.
It should be noted that the show is based more on the original story by Dodie Smith than the classic 1960 Disney cartoon or the live action feature that starred Glenn Close. None of the kids seemed to notice, and truth be told, it was the grown-ups who commented on the minor changes here and there from their beloved animated classic.
For the stage version, music is by Dennis DeYoung, with book by BT McNicholl and lyrics by both DeYoung and McNicholl.
While the show was engaging enough to hold the kids' attention for two hours, there was plenty for the grown-ups to enjoy as well.
Winning on both counts were the performances by Rachel York (above) as the snide and sneering Cruella de Vil, James Ludwig (at left) as the handsome Pongo Pop, and Catia Ojeda (with Ludwig) as his lovely mate.
With a scalpful of black and white hair and a splotch of red lipstick slashed across her mouth, York is a cross between a throaty Tallulah Bankhead and a crazed Carol Channing. She belts her numbers to the rafters, giving a powerful spin to the corrupt kidnap-tress, particularly in the solo "Cruella Always Gets Her Way." Meanwhile, Ludwig and Ojeda make for the perfect couple, devoted to one another and nurturing to their young brood. Together they offer the lovely "A Perfect Family" as well as "Be A Little Bit Braver." Ludwig is also great to watch dancing with the kids . . . errr, pups. Also of note was Julie Folesi as Perdita, who delivered a beautiful rendition of "One True Love."
Veteran Broadway director Jerry Zaks keeps things sharp. The first act gets the bulk of the plot while the second is mostly about savings the puppies. As a result, there's less storytelling and more vaudeville turns in Act Two. Again, nobody seemed to mind, and the musical numbers were fun, especially "Having The Crimes Of Our Lives" as delivered by Cruella's two henchmen, Jasper and Jinx, played by Michael Thomas Holmes and Robert Anthony Jones.
And yes, there are real dogs in the show. They're used sparingly in an effort to reinforce the idea that you're actually watching dogs, not people, throughout the story. And to tell the truth, it was subtle but highly effective in the first act blackout when the stage was filled, if only momentarily, with real dalmatians in place of each of the actors.
"101 Dalmatians" may not change the course of stage musicals, but for a happy holiday trip to the theater with the kids, it's a winning proposition -- bright, entertaining and ultimately endearing, featuring a fine cast of sharp and talented actors.
And for that it gets two Paws Up.
-- OnStage Boston
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