The Cadillac Palace has gone to the dogs. The high-energy national tour of The 101 Dalmatians Musical — an entirely new adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” and not in any way associated with the Disney movies — is playing through Feb 28. Take a kid and watch them have a great time. “Aww” at the dogs. “Boo” Cruella. Empathize with the poor actors tottering around on stilts (more on that later).
However, if you’re someone who appreciates a well-crafted musical with some semblance of an engaging plot, be prepared. This show is more bark than bite.
In most cases, the book writer is largely in charge of adapting the story to the stage. For Dalmatians, book writer BT McNicholl’s credits lie heavily in creating amusement park theatrical attractions — you know: those five-times-a-day shows that have 45 minutes to cram in 10 songs and some sort of story? That seems to have been the approach in creating this show. There are several loud, beat-heavy tunes and syrupy ballads by Dennis DeYoung (who was the founding member of the rock band Styx) followed by snippets of scenes. All energy is placed on moving things along as quickly as possible – screw character development or narrative shape.
I’ll give an example: Only moments after Pongo and Missus, played with low-key charm by James Ludwig and Catia Ojeda, have their puppies, they are pup-napped (in one of the lamest puppy snatching scenes ever) by the vile Cruella De Vil (Sara Gettelfinger, working hard at not tipping over while being threatening). We barely get to know any of the Dalmatian pups or see them interact with their new parents. Something is wrong when you don’t really care that the puppies have been snatched.
Most of act two is nothing more than the rescued dogs running back to London, with Cruella and her henchmen hot on their trail. More generically peppy songs (and one bizarre scene involving gypsies) dominate the action, giving the kid-heavy cast a chance to sing and dance.
And those stilts! Director Jerry Zaks should have cut them the first day of rehearsal. Sure, they help easily identify who the “humans” are on the stage – they’re the ones awkwardly tottering around with the fear of breaking a leg painted on their faces. While, in this adaptation, most of the humans are just helpless simpletons who the dogs take care of, which might make the clumsy stilts work on some level, Cruella needs to be a truly threatening presence. I mean, this is one of the best villains out there! We have to love to hate her, not be worried about her safety. Poor Gettelfinger is doing her very best evil diva shtick, but you can’t help but notice how rickety she looks up there, floundering around. It also doesn’t help that she hasn’t had much time on the stilts – Rachel York, who originated the role, unexpectedly left Cruella’s furs behind a few weeks ago at the last national tour stop.
Without a villain we can root for, the show sags.
However, the kids will love it. There’s nothing offensive, and at just over two hours it won’t stretch their attention spans too much. And it’s always a joy to see dogs on stage – I just wish there was more of that. Call me a sap, but I got a little misty-eyed when the real-life Dalmatians came out at the very end and ran around the stage, doing silly tricks while their handlers were off in the wings cuing them – and at one point, helping them along.
That almost made it worthwhile. Almost.
“The 101 Dalmatians Musical” plays through Feb. 28 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. For more information, visit broadwayinchicago.com.