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BWW Review: THE 101 DALMATIANS MUSICAL at Tennessee Performing Arts Center

You don't have to be a dog lover to enjoy The 101 Dalmatians Musical, but it doesn't hurt! Now onstage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, the national touring company of the musical by Dennis DeYoung and BT McNicholl delivers a production that is pleasantly diverting, tuneful and fun to watch. Add those adorable doggies to the mix and it just adds to the fun you have during the two hours you're caught up in Dodie Smith's story of animals and "their pets," starring the gloriously over-the-top Rachel York as Cruella DeVil.

While most of the world is familiar with the story of all those Dalmatians, thanks to the original animated film based on Smith's novel and the subsequent live action version and its sequel, I must confess something: I've never seen any of the films (sorry, not a Glenn Close fan here - she looks too much like George Washington to appeal to my tastes). So, I came to The 101 Dalmatians Musical with a clean slate, as it were. Somewhat surprisingly, I found myself kinda loving what I saw onstage: I'm a sucker for a story about dogs and the company's employment, if you will, of rescue dogs clearly appeals to my kinder, gentler self.

Set in 1957, the story is centered on London's Dearly family and their two fiercely loyal Dalmatians (Pongo and Missus Pongo). When neighbor Cruella DeVil, who was a classmate of Mrs. Dearly's at Miss Porter's (which, if I'm not mistaken, is an American school - but who am I to quibble?), happens upon the couple and their dogs in London's Regent Park district, the wheels are set in motion for the dastardly deeds that everyone expects (even me, the 101 Dalmatians virgin): Cruella is married to a furrier and decides that Dalmatian fur will be the hit of the London fashion season of '57. She sets her two henchmen, Jasper and Jinx, to kidnapping every Dalmatian in London, including the Dearly pair's recently delivered litter of pups.

Directed by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks (whose daughter, Emma, late of the MTV reality series Search for the New Elle Woods, is a member of the ensemble and has a cute turn as Cruella's cat), the production has an expensive and imaginative production aesthetic with costuming by Robert Morgan, scenic design by Heidi Ettinger and lighting design by Paul Gallo. But one of the production's unique features may be what results in its rather "odd" perception: Actors playing the human characters perform on stilts, which gives them a certain cartoonish elongation that is at once perfectly acceptable yet weirdly disconcerting. Some of the actors (particularly York and Kristin Beth Williams, who plays Mrs. Dearly) fare far more successfully atop the stilts, while others obviously struggle to maintain their balance. It's an interesting choice (and whose choice was it? Zaks' or choreographer Warren Carlyle's?) that would be more artfully realized if it were better executed. The dogs, of course, are completely anthropomorphic, played by human actors who wear no special make-me-look-like-a-dog makeup and are dressed in costumes that are basically white clothes with black spots on them. The height differential indicates the difference between humans and dogs in this imagined world.

The 101 Dalmatians Musical will never enter the pantheon of classic stage musicals (McNicholl's book is somewhat meandering and unfocused at times), but it definitely has its moments and proves, time and again, that DeYoung has what it takes to be a truly outstanding theatrical composer. His earlier work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, had its world premiere in Nashville about 12 years ago in a well-received Tennessee Repertory Theatre staging, and it has gone on to win acclaim in other productions around the country, including a Jeff Award in 2008 as Chicago's Outstanding New Musical.

While some parts of DeYoung's score lean heavily toward power ballads ("One True Love"), sound derivative, or is a mish-mash of musical styles in an attempt to appeal to the largest number of audience members, there are some numbers that exemplify the term "showtune." York's first act "Hot Like Me" does exactly what you want your songs in a musical comedy to do; it's a wonderful song that is artfully performed and choreographed. "Be A Little Bit Braver," performed by Pongo, Missus and all the other dogs of Britain to close Act 1 and is briefly reprised in the second act, is a catchy reggae-tinged tune that still resonates in my mind. And "Having the Crime of Our Lives," comically performed by Jasper and Jinx (Michael Thomas Holmes and Robert Anthony Jones), is raucously entertaining and indicative of DeYoung's musical versatility.

Carlyle's choreography is well-conceived and, for the most part, wonderfully performed by the cast who bring the story to life with some surprising 21st century twists which may prove why this show is suitable for audiences of all ages. Certainly, the story is one even young children can enjoy (and enjoy they did at opening night's "Kids Night on Broadway" celebration at TPAC) and there is enough to appeal to adults to make it palatable to even the most wizened among them. For example, the Dearly's household staff, Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler (Erin Maguire and Madeleine Doherty) are apparently a loving lesbian couple, while Cruella's fashion show/cocktail party features some obviously gay fashionistas in attendance - in 1957 London, who knew?

The cast features some exceptional supporting performances, particularly from Holmes and Jones as Cruella's henchmen; James Ludwig as Pongo, the loving and protective daddy dog; Catia Ojeda as the warmly nurturing Missus Pongo; Chuck Ragsdale as Prince, the show's narrator who serves as sort of a major domo for the evening's events; and Julie Foldesi as Peridita, whose beautiful voice is given the spotlight in the show's big power ballad, "One True Love."

It's the uber-talented Rachel York who takes the spotlight and refuses to relinquish it with her wonderfully vile portrayal of the villainous Cruella. She's big and brassy, ballsy and beautiful, clad in gorgeous black-and-red costumes that are visual feasts, with a bevy of black-and-white hairstyles that are tributes to the wigmaker's art. York's exquisitely expressive face gives her the ability to play to the theatre's farthest reaches and her clarion voice ensures that every one of her musical numbers deserve to be heard again and again.

But if anyone can steal the scene from York, it's the wonderfully trained and altogether lovable real Dalmatians that sprint across the stage every so often and who display their amazing abilities in the play's final scenes who can do it. Trained by Joel Slaven Professional Animals, they will be seeking "forever homes" when their theatrical journeys end and there's no doubt in my mind that theatre- and dog-lovers from all over the country will be vying for the right to be these dogs' "pets."

- The 101 Dalmatians Musical. Book by BT McNicholl. Music by Dennis DeYoung. Lyrics by Dennis DeYoung and BT McNicholl. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. The National Touring Company at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. Through Sunday, January 24. For ticket information, visit www.tpac.org and for further information about the show, visit www.the101dalmatiansmusical.com.

photograph of Rachel York as Cruella DeVil by Joan Marcus



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