Theater goes to the dogs: '101 Dalmatians'

By Amy Shaunette

Like Peter Pan, I am one of those people who refuse to grow up. I’m currently reading “A Bear Called Paddington,” and last week I purchased a “Where in World is Carmen Sandiego?” sweatshirt. For my 21st birthday I received Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on DVD. So naturally, when “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” premiered at the Orpheum Theatre last Tuesday, I was there, front and center.

Yes, that’s right-“101 Dalmatians” is now a musical. The immediate question is, of course, how does one fit 101 dogs on stage, let alone teach them to act? Let me tell you, it’s not easy.Directed by four-time Tony Award winning director Jerry Zaks, “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” is an incredibly ambitious production. Based on the 1957 novel by Dodie Smith, the musical is the story of dog couple Pongo and Missis’ entry into parenthood. When evil Cruella de Vil steals their puppies to make fur coats, Pongo and Missis search England for their missing children.

The twist is that like the book, the musical occurs from a dog’s perspective-humans are dogs’ pets. Visually, this makes for an interesting experience. Human characters walk on stilts hidden under long dresses and tall pants, towering over the dogs, who are played by stilt-less adults and children in black and white spotted clothing. Unfortunately, the stilts hinder the actors’ ability to walk and dance gracefully, and the humans appear cartoonish, almost alien-like. Who knows, maybe that’s how dogs see us.

Most impressive was the costuming for Cruella de Vil. With glamorous dresses, fur-trimmed coats and that infamous black and white hair, Cruella was truly terrifying. Brilliantly portrayed by Broadway actress Rachel York, Cruella scared me even more than she did my seatmates, who couldn’t have been older than seven. Then again, I’m an animal rights activist, so a puppy-stealing furrier on stilts is my worst nightmare.

That said, the musical’s songs just might haunt me in my sleep. Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung composed the music of “101 Dalmatians,” adding a bizarre 1980s flavor to an otherwise family-friendly, vanilla score. The low point was ” One True Love,” a sickeningly sweet number about finding that one special dog. Just when I thought I’d left my childhood behind for sure, the first act ending with “Be A Little Braver,” an upbeat reggae song that I just can’t get out of my head.

But what about the dogs? It’s been said that the best advertising tools are sex and puppies, and I think the same is true of theater. The dogs were the musical’s redeemers. Appearing only at the end of each act, the 15 canine cast members were a welcome novelty. The show’s finale was an impressive dog talent show. The Dalmatian actors are rescue dogs, assembled from across the country by dog trainer Joel Slaven. True divas, the dogs will tour the nation with the show in a customized bus furnished with a playground and a grooming station.

Aside from the finales, there were no dogs in the performance. The audience was expected to imagine 101 pups romping about the stage. Maybe I’ve finally grown up, but my imagination doesn’t stretch that far. Ultimately, “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” is for the kids.