The longevity test for any family-friendly play or musical is not so much whether or not the parents like it, but how well it grabs and holds the attention of the wee folk in the audience. And based on the swarm of five- through eight-year-olds surrounding me on opening night of “The 101 Dalmatians Musical” at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, the brand new, Broadway-bound production should have a lengthy and prosperous life on the road. But I suspect its long-term success on the Great White Way might be another story altogether.
Based on the 1956 book by Dodie Smith, the slick and gorgeously designed production might disappoint anyone expecting a basic retread of the Disney classic animated film – or ANY Disney-produced stage musical, for that matter. Yet most of the nearby kids – particularly the boys – sat mesmerized (and sometimes on the edges of their seats) as the journey of Pongo, Missus and their kidnapped puppies unfolded before them.
BT McNicholl’s script closely follows the book, which tells the story from the dogs’ point of view. The show’s opening number, “A Man’s Best Friend” (co-written with composer and lyricist Dennis DeYoung), explains this quite clearly both vocally and visually, as director Jerry Zaks places the actors portraying the human characters on 15-inch stilts, and moves them about on Heidi Ettinger’s oversized and dimensionally exaggerated set. This unique perspective not only helps distinguish the “humans” from the “animals,” it also makes Cruella De Vil even scarier.
On stilts or not, Cruella, as played by Rachel York, is delightfully and deliciously evil. Out to turn stolen Dalmatian puppies into expensive fashion ware, York’s Cruella never truly scares the daylights out of the young audience members. Instead, she finds many layers of humor within the character to toy with. (One particular moment in the second act – I won’t spoil the show by revealing which – captures this dichotomy especially well: An intense and possibly terrifying scene quickly becomes comic – which caused a young girl in front of me to switch from whimpering and burying her head in her mother’s chest to laughing in the snap of a finger.)
In fact, it’s that mix of comedy and drama that keeps young and old alike engaged throughout the two-hour show. (When the show sags, it’s because of musical numbers that are a smidgen too long.)
James Ludwig and Catia Ojeda are adorable as husband-and-wife Pongo and Missus, while Erin Maguire as Nanny Cook is a scene-stealer. And Julie Foldesi gives the show heart as Perdita.
Also talented are the eight children who play Pongo’s kidnapped puppies. (Don’t get caught up in the fact that the number of child actors doesn’t match the litter of puppies Missus gives birth to early in the show; consider it creative accounting.) The ultimate scene stealers, though, are the 15 Dalmatians who make brief appearances at the end of both acts.
What the show lacks, however – which could hurt its chances on Broadway – is that “wow” factor Disney has trained theatergoers to expect from large cast, kid-friendly musicals such as this. Sure, all the technical elements are top notch and a tune or two are still hummable the next day. But other than York, no other actor takes his or her character to that same level of perfection or intensity. Nor does any single moment cause your jaw to drop – which makes me wonder: Will audiences want to see this thoroughly enjoyable, yet spectacle-free show again and again?
On the road, all across America, I’d bark “yes.” But on Broadway where the expectations are higher, the critics pickier and the tickets pricier, my forecast is a bit fuzzier.
‘The 101 Dalmatians Musical’
Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Daily through Nov. 22. Tickets: $20-$72. For information: 313-471-6611 or http://www.olympiaentertainment.com.