Dogging it

The 101 Dalmatians Musical has legs
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 17, 2010

THEATER031910_Dalm_main 
WOOF! A few of the stars of The 101 Dalmatians Musical.

There isn't much that's cuter than little doggies, except maybe kittens and babies, but try getting them to parade in a line. Cats have been done to death, and John Travolta wasn't available for Look Who's Talking: The Musical, so pups it was — fortunately.

The 101 Dalmatians Musical, at Providence Performing Arts Center through March 21, is everything you could expect from the family-friendly story: adorable, adventurous, funny, and hummable in the shower to boot.

The creators knew what they were doing. Broadway director Jerry Zaks (La Cage Aux Folles, Little Shop of Horrors) directed the adaptation that has a book by BT McNicholl (Billy Elliot, Spamalot, and Camelot) and lyrics by McNicholl and Dennis DeYoung (a founding member of the rock group Styx), who also composed the music.

The 1956 Dodie Smith children's book of the title has been translated into 47 languages and, of course, was made into a Walt Disney animated film five years later, plus a 1996 live-action remake (and a 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians) and a 1997-98 Disney TV series. It was obvious from the outset that this franchise had legs — 404 of them.

With its hyperbolic story and no-boos-barred villain, audiences could plunge into a melodrama, a rare treat. Ticketholders haven't enjoyed themselves so much since they got to hiss at Simon Legree as he pursued Liza over the ice floes in the wildly popular 19th-century stage adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

After all, Cruella DeVil (Sara Gettelfinger) and her henchmen, the Baddum brothers (Michael Thomas Holmes, Robert Anthony Jones ) are after the beautiful spotted dogs so she can fatten them up and have them made into coats. The central canines are Pongo (James Ludwig) and Missus (Catia Ojeda), who live with their devoted petters, a young married couple, the Dearlys (Mike Masters and Erin Mosher).

Dogs are easier to wrangle in a cartoon, so there are usually only two or four of a total 15 Dalmatians on stage at any one time, except at the end, when they do some tricks for us, such as pushing a lawnmower. The spotted mob is mostly represented by the human Pongos and eight costumed children playing their little spotted pack. (Don't worry, they don't have black greasepaint on their noses and are not wearing floppy ears.)

One imaginative touch is that the humans are grotesquely tall, to represent the perspective of the dogs, tromping about with short stilts under their costumes. Considering the accuracy of the animal psychology, it's a shame there aren't as many pets in the audience as children.

Unavoidably, a lot is made of the role reversal here, as in the song "Man Is a Dog's Best Friend," and such observations as that people are "unusually intelligent — almost canine at times." But unlike with some musicals we could name, many of the 14 songs here are cleverly written and musically interesting. From the sweet "A Perfect Family" to the feisty "Be a Little Bit Braver" to the propulsive "Breakout," they energize the silly story and help characterize the characters singing them.

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