To its credit, “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” is a polished, highly professional affair for kids — it’s directed, after all, by Jerry Zaks, and sponsored by Purina. But it does seem that a big touring show — even one targeted to a demographic for whom a 7:30 p.m. curtain is likely past their bedtime — could possess some bark or bite or personality. Don’t the little ‘uns deserve something with a more vivid imagination than talented but nondescript actors playing Dalmatians in spotted white clothes that call to mind a laundry detergent commercial?
To compare the show within its proper breed, a tyke-targeted stage version of a well-known screen title, this one exists somewhere in the vast expanse between the fully dull “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” or “Dr. Dolittle” and the comparatively buoyant “High School Musical.” Like “HSM,” its greatest long-term legacy may be school or community productions, which should be able to handle the costume challenge.
Harder to replicate will be the actual dogs who appear in this show, whose choreographed antics at the end of each act are significantly more impressive than the human calisthenics suggesting dance movement.
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The show most certainly was not created to please critics, but its restraint makes it mostly painless, despite feeling like a collection of missed opportunities for clever stage interpretations of the life of dogs.
Once in a while, there’s a nod to the adults in the audience amid the adulation of parental life. For example, the butler and cook are both women, and there’s an unsubtle suggestion of lesbianism. Much more subtle — in fact, the creators may not even fully be in on the joke — is a puppy child asking her doggie parents about the birds and the bees with the line: “Daddy, what happens in the bushes?”
The performances are likable enough. Sara Gettelfinger — who recently replaced Rachel York — is properly campy as Cruella De Vil, the canine kidnapper who plans to turn the title pups into furs. After the real dogs, she’s definitely the most entertaining element, much moreso than the Gypsy characters — the show is based on Dodie Smith’s original book rather than the Disney movie — who could have been cut to shorten the running time.
And, to find another distinct positive, one of the mostly sound-alike songs in former Styx founder Dennis DeYoung’s score — “Be a Little Bit Braver” — has a decidedly catchy reggae beat.
Like the other human characters, Cruella stands on stilts to make the canines seem in proper perspective. And the painted backdrops at odd angles further the concept of presenting the world from the dogs’ eye view. It’s a great idea. But even here, there’s a dearth of imagination. If this really is what a dog’s world is like, then no wonder they sleep so much.