I could list 101 ways in which 101 Dalmatians is one of my favourite Disney films. While of course not an original Disney film as it was based on Dodie Smith’s 1957 novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, there are a multitude of reasons why it is so beloved among many. And now, a brand new musical based on the story is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, directed by long-time collaborator with the theatre Timothy Sheader.
Although this is not the first musical version of it (there was another run back in 2009), it features an updated story and brand new music that speaks to a new generation of audiences and has them howling with laughter throughout. Some changes to the plot and characters include Mr and Mrs Dearly (Roger and Anita, darling!) now simply being renamed Dominic and Danielle, Jasper and Casper (originally Horace) being Cruella’s nephews, and Cruella now being a “social media influencer” (and doesn’t quite resemble the Disney villain we all know and love to hate) who at first just wanted to pose with Dom and Dan’s dogs for a photoshoot – until one of them bites her. The changes don’t make huge differences to the story’s journey and outcome but are enough to keep it fresh (even though I was a little confused with the need to change their names, as dated as they may be).
Borrowing elements from the animated film from 1961, the live-action version starring Glenn Close and even the prequel film Cruella, 101 Dalmatians the musical – adapted by Zinnie Harris – is barking mad for its bravery to be adapted for the stage considering the sheer number of animal characters needed but as you can expect, a clever production team made it happen. Using innovative puppetry and costumes as well as props galore, 101 dalmatians (well, I’m guessing so – you couldn’t count them on stage obviously), several other dogs, cats and even a fox were brilliantly portrayed in ways that were reminiscent of how animals are shown in shows such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Lion King and War Horse, among others.
Part of me almost worried they would spoof play the dogs in an overly comical fashion like they did with Legally Blonde the Musical but thankfully this was not the case. Pongo and Perdi are each portrayed by two puppeteers, one who moves the dog’s heads and the actor who voices them, their legs making up the dog’s hind legs, complete with a mechanical tail. At times, you’re so enraptured in how they do it that you forget what’s actually going on but at other times you are so enchanted by the actors and the puppets that your heart melts and you feel for them as quite lifelike characters.
As equally tough to do was cast a Cruella de Vil who was as psycho, mean and unforgiving as she was born to be. Though I stand by the opinion that a drag queen would have been amazing in the role or Cruella could have been a drag queen in this new version, Kate Fleetwood (who most may remember as Mary Cattermole from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1) took on the role, slipping into the fur coat of the villain and embodying her dog-hating, people-hating, self-loving and fur-loving tendencies to a tee, giving her that drag queen-esque look at times and an almost pantomime villain twist.
The show’s music – by Douglas Hodge – was fun, light-hearted, often downright silly but also at times quite emotional, easily appealing to the wide age range of the audience. Songs such as Bury that Bone and Turn Round Three Times highlight the adorable nature of dogs every dog owner is familiar with, Litterbugs is reminiscent of a school nursery rhyme that children will enjoy, Achoo is the owners’ lament over their kidnapped dogs (who strangely don’t rush to claim them at the end) and Dogtra is the bizarre yet hilarious dog-filled ode about the legendary Twilight Barking ability (complete with slightly kinky “pup” headgear on some dancers).
However, honestly few songs really caught on and were more funny in passing and overshadowed by the great visuals or choreography on stage instead. Though some highlights include Cruella’s Act One closer Für Fur, which starts off as a ballad about her self-consciousness as a public figure and her self-awareness as a bad person but climaxes into a glorious, villainous and self-proclaiming anthem. Cruella also relishes on I Can Smell Puppy, which is a truly bombastic Disney villain-esque number akin to the likes of Poor Unfortunate Souls, Be Prepared and Mother Knows Best and really allows Fleetwood’s rich, powerful and gutsy vocal shine and her drag-pantomime baddie act take over. Conversely there is the sad but also uplifting All of Our Kisses, sung by the dogs after cute runt Button falls extremely ill, breathing extra human emotion into them as they fight and will to keep Button alive in the midst of their flight from danger.
The cast are all delightful and versatile as many of the company take on several roles each – be they crooks in the local dodgy pub or portraying puppies or other animals including a variety of dog breeds or cats. Even the band sometimes make their way onto the stage to not just play their instruments but also sing and dance, a rare thing to see in most stage shows. None, however, can of course compare to Kate’s spotlight stealing take as Cruella who you may find just as hilarious as you do intimidating.
But Danny Collins as Pongo’s voice and Emma Lucia as Perdi’s must be given credit to as they juggle the need to behave and talk as if dogs would while also making themselves relatable as serous main characters rather than just gimmicky walking and talking stage props. And of course, the four adorable and talented young actors who play the roles of the puppies who aren’t just puppy head puppets really deserve a special mention as they soak up the characters and give it their all – not even unprofessionally wavering when their mics suddenly stop working…
Despite the fact that of course the dogs are the heroes of the story in a way, you can’t help feel that Cruella – as I said – overshadows them and you’re more drawn to her than them, only wowed by the puppetry of Pongo and Perdi and all puppy-eyed over the children playing the puppies. The “pets” (humans) Danielle and Dominic also do not come across as particularly likeable unlike their film counterparts due to their bumbling naivety (for example, not understanding what their dogs want or are trying to tell them, Dominic so close to letting Cruella buy the puppies and then Danielle letting Jasper and Casper into her home unattended). Because of this you almost feel they don’t deserve and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to keep so many dogs in their tiny flat.
So despite a so-so score, a lack of real connection with some of the characters and quite a basic stage setup (though this may be due to the Open Air Theatre itself), the costumes are a either well detailed or a monochrome feast for the eyes, the puppetry is creative and impressive and the story has both charm and humour. Some adults may not be dotty about the show while those who have grown up loving the original films and story will either be lolling with excitement or be underwhelmed by it. But one thing you can be sure of is that it will keep the children entertained for a good couple of hours (that is if the weather isn’t bad or too hot), making their ears prick up and their tails wag along.
Whether or not this new adaption will venture beyond the Open Air Theatre when it finishes its seasonal run on 28th August is yet to be known but it’s certainly a production that children across the country that can’t go to London will be begging for the treat of seeing it.