Regional Reviews: Chicago
The 101 Dalmatians Musical
With its Disney heritage and London setting, it would be easy to have expectations that this touring production, staged by a team of Broadway veterans, to provide a Mary Poppins-like experience. While The 101 Dalmatians Musical, which has no involvement from Disney, is not in the same league as Mary Poppins in either production values or writing, it's a perfectly enjoyable family musical with merits that outweigh its flaws. Sticking with the "league" analogy, let's say it's in the AAA minors (the league just below Major League Baseball). It's a peppy and colorful musical, combining the guaranteed appeal of kids and dogs, set to some hook-laden melodies by Dennis DeYoung (singer and songwriter of the rock group Styx and composer of a musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Though director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle keep the pace, energy and volume at one level throughout most of the show, the piece moves along nicely and clocks in at a perfect length of 120 minutes plus 15 minute intermission.
The story is taken from the novel rather the films (the original novel by Dodie Smith is the only source material credited), though the basic plotline is the same. London Furrier Cruella DeVil steals a litter of Dalmatian puppies, planning to kill them and create apparel with their furs. The puppies' parents Bongo and Missus follow in pursuit to northern England to rescue them. They're helped along the way by dogs of all sorts of other breeds. The dogs are played mostly by humans, with child performers as the puppies, but supplemented by fifteen real-life dalmatians. The story is told from the point-of-view of the dogswho, as any dog lover will testify, believe themselves to be a species smarter and superior to their lovable but inept humans. The production takes this point of view visually as well; set flats are drawn with a perspective intended to give the effect of looking up at buildings and walls from a dog-eye level. Further, all the humans characters are performed by actors walking on hidden stilts or extreme platform shoes to make them taller than the actors playing animals. It doesn't really achieve the intended effect. The actors playing humans never make their movements appear naturalthey end up walking rather like Frankenstein's monsterthough it does keep clear, particularly in the early scenes, who's a human and who's a dog. It would have been better if Robert Morgan's costumes handled that chore. Instead, the dogs are dressed more like humans in ways to reflect the ethnicity of their breed (a Scottish terrier in a kilt, for example).
The story moves along swiftly, though, and there's lots of song and dance. DeYoung's score (with adequate lyrics by DeYoung and bookwriter BT McNicholl) has a pop sensibility that sounds nothing like anything from London in the 1950s of the story, but will have a comfortable and familiar tone for the young audiences for whom this show is intended. The score includes a catchy title song and a few potential breakouts, like the ballad "One True Love," and a Disney-esque "lesson" song, "Be a Little Bit Braver," which inexplicably has a reggae beat although it's sung by an English sheepdog. Some of the other numbers are little too expected, like the comedy duet "Having the Crime of Our Lives," sung by Cruella's bumbling accomplices. Other song titles like "Man is a Dog's Best Friend," and "There's Always Room for One More" accurately tell you there's going to be nothing astonishing in those numbers.
Carlyle's contemporary dances are mostly left to the dogs, since the humans are stuck in those stilts, but the choreography is well executed by the ensemble, which includes ten very talented child performers as the puppies. The opening number "Man is a Dog's Best Friend," the act one closer "Be a Little Bit Braver," "Break Out," (performed by the puppies) and "Spot-On," a song in which the dalmatians dance with gypsies, are all lively and winning production numbers.
The cast is now led by Sara Gettelfinger as Cruella DeVil (Miss Gettelfinger having replaced Rachel York), and she gamely camps it up in an appropriately cartoonish style. Unfortunately, the Broadway veteran only has three songsall comedy numberswith which to show her considerable skills. The remaining leads, James Ludwig and Catia Ojeda as Pongo and Missus, Chuck Ragsdale as the narrator Prince, and Emma Zaks as Perdita all boast solid voices. Ludwig and Ojeda provide effective dance leadership for the doggy dance numbers as well.
Heidi Ettinger's sets are colorful and incorporate enough invention to surprise the audience. There's a three-dimensional map of England to show the dogs' travels and a shadow-puppet section that depicts Cruella's pursuit of the dogs across the English countryside. The real-life dogs are used sparingly, and to great effect. When they supplement the human actors and painted cutouts that otherwise represent some of the 101 dalmatians, there's a definite "wow" factorparticularly in the final scenes where they perform some pretty amazing tricks.
Even though the creators might have included more visual and verbal jokes abut dog behavior, dog lovers will likely smile upon this musical. Certainly sponsor Purina Dog Chow believes so. It must be noted that the producers and sponsor Purina crossed a boundary of sorts by having narrator Prince carry and display a bag of Purina Dog Chow at the top of act two. It's not quite a commercial, but it's more than product placement and probably more intrusive than most theatergoers would like.
If The 101 Dalmatians Musical is somewhat formulaic, it's performed with enough showmanship and laced with enough surprises to at least be the sum of its better parts. Like a pet-owner will say about a beloved pet, at the end of the day you just forgive the faults and errors and love them for their virtues.
The 101 Dalmatians Musical will play the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago through February 28, 2010. Tickets available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, all Ticketmaster retail locations, and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.