My sister and I stood in the Orpheum Theatre lobby, putting away a couple of cocktails and discussing the fact that I’d been rejected by a film crew shooting a promo spot—for admitting that I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the first half of The 101 Dalmatians Musical. “What’s your problem?” my sister asked. “Everyone likes to see someone getting hit by a fish.”
Yes, someone gets hit by a large plastic fish in the first act of the new musical, having its world premiere this week in Minneapolis. Several real live Dalmatians also appear on stage a couple of times, there’s a reference to Clifford the Big Red Dog, and there’s a crushingly unsubtle insinuation that a couple of maids are gay. The Orpheum audience’s raucous reaction to these events suggests that these, too, are things that everyone likes to see…everyone, I guess, except me. My take on this production is that it’s a hastily sketched stab at a dramatization of the Dodie Smith novel that also inspired the Disney film.
|the 101 dalmatians musical, presented through october 18 at the orpheum theatre, 910 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($23-$73) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.|
The principal redeeming characteristic of this production is that the cast members seem to realize that they’re in a b-musical and try to make up for the fact with sheer pluck. By the end of the show, my empathy for the performers was such that I finally came to enjoy the production in the sense that one enjoys a charismatic adult reading a completely dull children’s book to a clever child. It’s to the cast’s credit: squeezing joy from this production is like squeezing water from a stone.
What really disappointed me about The 101 Dalmatians Musical is that it often settles for the lowest common denominator despite the fact that its material holds great promise for the stage. Give this plot, and perhaps also the clever idea of putting actors playing humans on stilts to distinguish them from the actors playing dogs, to Open Eye Figure Theatre, In the Heart of the Beast, Jon Ferguson, Joseph Scrimshaw, or just about any small theater company in town, and they’d give you something inspired that would almost certainly not stoop to the level of Pongo the paterfamilias gloating that his oversize brood finally proved he wasn’t “shooting blanks.”
For those unfamiliar with the plot: it involves a family of dogs escaping from the clutches of an evil woman who would like to turn them all into coats. Any melodrama is only as good as its villain; The 101 Dalmatians Musical has a superb villain in the character of Cruella de Vil, and a casting coup with Rachel York in that role. Unfortunately the show’s creative team seem to understand that all too well, and give York little to do but simply stand on stage and be Cruella de Vil. When York is on stage, she automatically eclipses the rest of the cast the way Neil Young eclipses Crosby, Stills, and Nash…but she has so little to work with here that she may as well have posed for a portrait of herself as Cruella.
Everyone else is also well-cast, but to what end? The book by B.T. McNicholl lurches from scene to scene blowing almost every chance for dramatic tension (when Cruella and her henchmen corner the eponymous dogs in a barn, the Dalmatians just walk on out while their captors are singing); the songs by Styx’s Dennis DeYoung sound like, but compare unfavorably to, those written by Desirée Goyette and Ed Bogas for the 1984 cartoon It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown; and beyond the aforementioned stilts, the stagecraft is lazy. A few static standees are the production’s only attempt to evoke the several dozen Dalmatians who supposedly accompany the core family of dogs on their journey home. To be sure, I do not know how one would create the illusion of 101 escaping Dalmatians onstage; but I’d be fascinated to see any of the aforementioned local theater artists give it a shot, and I doubt that any of them, even with a $50 budget, would have settled for just saying “they’re there, take our word for it.”
Director Jerry Zaks told the Star Tribune that he almost spilled his drink with excitement at the prospect of directing an adaptation of 101 Dalmatians. I imagine everyone involved was excited to be associated with this show, but I’m sorry to say that despite the effort I’m sure the creative team put into this production, on stage it comes across as a quick-and-dirty attempt to capitalize on a lucrative brand. So many aspects of this production seem half-cooked and underthought: the set design that vaguely nods in the direction of 1957 without making any firm decision about whether or not it wants to go there, the musical arrangements that seem written for a dentist’s office circa 1982 (I swear Chuck Mangione was in that orchestra pit), the weirdly exceptional and painfully awkward ballet interlude, and especially the bizarre decision to preserve the book’s stereotypical presentation of traveling Gypsy performers. I appreciate that 1957 was a different era, but historical authenticity was clearly so far from the minds of the team behind this musical that the decision to preserve a hoary ethnic stereotype (yep, they steal food and abuse animals) is inexplicable. If Eugene Hütz saw this production, Zaks would get a guitar smashed over his head. And the Gypsies aren’t the only ethnic group raked over the coals: the production is very explicitly set in London, but only the comic supporting characters speak with British accents.
But to be fair, and to return to my opening observation, many aspects of the show clearly delighted the opening-night audience I saw it with. The performers—young performers very much included—give it their all, and there’s a certain shameless, risk-free economy of entertainment that has worked for a million low-budget kids’ TV programs and works just as well here. If I were the producers, though, I’d have opted to give a one-man show to the cast member, maybe 11 or 12 years old, who bellied up to the bar next to my sister and me at the afterparty. He shrugged off the Shirley Temple left by one of his costars: “I just want a soda, or maybe an orange juice,” he explained. “I’m not so much into the party aspect of the business.” Patiently waiting for service, he sighed. “The sad thing,” he confided to us, “is that I forgot my fake ID.”