note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Sheila Barth
The North American tour of “The 101 Dalmatians” musical that appeared December 23-27 in seven performances at the Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, Boston, featured outstanding writers, performers and musicians, all celebrated award winners, with the added bonus of being a family-friendly production.
It boasted an upbeat musical score, composed by Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung, with lyrics by DeYoung and BT McNicholl, and promised to showcase 15 talented Dalmatians who were rescued nationally from animal shelters, then trained by renowned Joel Slaven, along with a multi-generational cast of 30 humans, including several cute, talented kids portraying puppies, and dynamic stage star Rachel York as ultra villainess Cruella de Vil, directed by Broadway legend Jerry Zaks.
However, excluding a few cameo performances and typical stunts at the end, the canine Dalmatians were rarely on stage. Surprisingly, this two-hour, highly-touted musical that’s set in 1957‘s London, England, drew tepid applause throughout both acts.
Somewhere, this production lost its focus, trying to appeal to all ages, but appearing corny and cutesy to adults, with cartoonish effects. Perhaps the producers intended to follow closely author Dodie Smith’s charming story of personified pets and downplay the cruelty and horror of a villainess who gets rich by creating coats, gloves, and hats out of animals’ fur - specifically from Dalmatian dogs and puppies - as her new fashion highlight. York provides a caricature of Cruella de Vil, dressed in her devilish, red outfits, her half-black, half-white hair spiraled conically, as she struts and shouts about always getting what she wants in her bombastic theme song, “Cruella Always Gets her Way/Hot” . But even York succumbs to hyperbole to make Cruella comedically evil, maniacally relishing in killing and skinning cute little puppies and other innocent animals.
Catia Ojeda as Missus, the puppies‘ devoted mom, and her hubby, Pongo, portrayed by James Ludwig, and their human counterpart-owners, kindly Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, (portrayed respectively by Mike Masters and Kristen Beth Williams), perform well, along with several child actors, who pivot, prance, tumble across the stage, and sing well, dressed in white spotted outfits, as they playfully cavort around taller-than-life adult humans on stilts, surrounded by cartoonish sets, backdrops, and overly tall furniture.
Although Music Director Don York on keyboards and the orchestra are fantastic, most musical numbers are uninspiring. The songs are ho-hummable, evoking little chemistry among the actors. Also, several lines are one bad pun after another.
While the excitement of finding and rescuing the puppies builds as Pongo and Missus send out a canine SOS and network leading to the northern outpost of Cruella’s comic henchmen, Jasper and Jinx, their trek back home - with their own puppies and 87 other kidnapped puppies, falls flat. They encounter a band of gypsies that force them to perform, but only the Pongo family is affected, making us wonder where the others are. Several dogpals help them along the way, and Cruella goes out in a blaze of glory as the super-enlarged family finds its way back home, where they are greeted with open arms and a new leash on life. Don’t despair if you missed “101 Dalmatians”. It isn’t worth howling about.