BWW Reviews: 101 DALMATIONS Come to Imagination

BWW Reviews: 101 DALMATIONS Come to Imagination

Nestled in a quieter part of Downtown Bethesda, Imagination Stage has found quite a bit of success in producing high quality children's theater, and their holiday offering this season is a world premiere musical adaptation of the beloved book 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. Directed by Imagination Stage Artistic Director Janet Stanford with a book by Martha King De Silva and music and lyrics by Joan Cushing, 101 DALMATIANS is a fun and loveable take on a classic.

Set in 1950's London, our heroes are two dalmatians, Pongo, (Johnathan Atkinson), and Missis, (Caroline Wolfson), and their "humans", Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, (Vaughn Irving and Emily Kester). After Missis gives birth to five pups, the evil Cruella de Vil, (Sarah Beth Pfiefer), kidnaps the litter to make them into spotted fur coats. To save their children, Pongo and Missis set out on a cross country adventure that'll have them meeting all sorts of dogs, (and one cat), and going up against Cruella and her cronies, (Christopher Rudy).

The first thing you'll see is a unique and beautifully constructed set designed by Milagros Ponce de Leon, made up of a large backdrop of London townhouses and a proscenium cluttered with sketches and maps of various places in England. All these set pieces serve a function in the storytelling of the show, but it's a shame that their eclectic and clashing styles produce a stage picture that verges on over stimulating.

An ingenious production choice is that the dogs are presented as the most human-like, while the human characters in the show are ridiculous, oversized puppets. The resulting effect remained comical throughout the evening but came with a through disadvantages, as the humans inside those puppets didn't seem completely comfortable with the getup. At one point Cruella's glamorous fur coat got caught in a door and even with Mrs. Dearly's help the incident stalled the show, (some graceful ad libbing on the part of Pfiefer earned her an applause break once she was finally freed). Also, while Cruella's puppet's mouth opened and closed while she talked, none of the other puppets did, which made understanding which human was talking when there were a few on stage incredibly difficult. Sound was also a problem at times and I could not understand a word in either of the songs sung by Cruella's cronies, the Baddun brothers.

The original score by Cushing is a surprising gem, with extremely well written and witty lyrics and catchy, memorable music sung with bravado and finesse by the talented cast. One great disappointment however is the canned, synthesized music used in this production which does not do justice to Cushing's work. It's a shame that while Imagination Stage obviously recognizes the importance of live theater for children, that same rule doesn't seem to apply when it comes to live music. However, Ilona Kessell's choreography is an absolute treat and has the entire company embodying various doggy mannerisms in clever blocking that makes creative use of leashes.

What's special about DALMATIANS though is it's emphasis on imagination. From the way Stanford manages to convince us that there are 101 dalmatians on stage when we can clearly only see 5, to the car chase through England that takes place in the aisles of a theater, this production becomes a canvas for the audience to fill with our own imagination. Without ever pandering to the children or condescending to the adults, DALMATIANS finds a perfect balance between the literal and the symbolic that can please any age group. And the most amazing moment in the show is actually the curtain call, where for the first you'll really see that the hundreds of characters are really portrayed by a cast of nine, which is bound to bring back a sense of childlike wonder to even the most cynical grownup in the room.

Image from Imagination Stage's website.

Runtime: just under an hour and a half with no intermission.

101 DALMATIANS, best for ages 4+, runs through January 11, 2015 in Imagination Stage's Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre. Tickets start at $10, and can be purchased online at www.imaginationstage.org, at the Imagination Stage box office, or via phone at 301-280-1660. Group rates are available.


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