Stealing puppies, and the show
As Cruella, Rachel York puts the bite in ‘The 101 Dalmatians Musical’
The De Vil wears Dior. But she wants to wear puppies.
Let’s face it, the oft-told tale of those 101 spotty pooches has always served mainly as an opportunity to drink in the sheer, delicious villainy of Cruella De Vil. With her whatever-it-takes approach to fashion, she is one of the meanest baddies ever to flick cigarette ash on an underling. To see her is to get a sudden chill, indeed.
One problem with “The 101 Dalmatians Musical,’’ now playing at the Citi Wang Theatre, is that we don’t see enough of the fair Ms. De Vil.
This is doubly disappointing because Rachel York is such a malevolent treat as Cruella. Attired in a hell-red number, her teeth bared and her nostrils flared, York plays the role to (and beyond) the hilt, like Norma Desmond gone even crazier.
“I worship fur,’’ she purrs, and we tremble for anything unlucky enough to have fur. “I wish I had time to do the job myself,’’ she snarls after instructing her dim-witted henchmen in ways to dispatch the puppies so their fur can be turned into coats and gloves, and we believe her.
York’s burning-down-the-house delivery of “Hot’’ and “Cruella Always Gets Her Way’’ are the evening’s high points. When she is not onstage, “The 101 Dalmatians Musical’’ settles into a less compelling but still reasonably entertaining groove, especially for the youngsters in the audience. Director Jerry Zaks, a Broadway veteran, reaches into his bag of tricks for a slapstick diversion whenever the pace threatens to slow down.
Adult actors in spotted costumes play the roles of the older dalmatians, and child actors play the puppies who are kidnapped by Cruella and her minions, Jasper and Jinx. In order to establish a sense of scale, the actors who play human beings, including York, perform on stilts. This cannot be easy, but they pulled it off with nary a stumble.
The cast’s energy helps to obscure a lack of sizzle or originality in the book by B.T. McNicholl and the lyrics by Dennis DeYoung and McNicholl. The music, written by DeYoung, the keyboardist and songwriter for the rock band Styx (he wrote “Lady’’ and “Come Sail Away’’), is reasonably catchy, if seldom inspired.
DeYoung and McNicholl are the lucky beneficiaries not just of York’s talent but also that of James Ludwig and Catia Ojeda, who bring an expressive warmth to the roles of Pongo and Missus, the parents of the kidnapped dalmatians. Ojeda’s rendition of “My Sweet Child’’ has a limpid beauty that carries it past the banality of the lyrics. She and Ludwig team up effectively for “A Perfect Family,’’ then kick it up a notch with the rousing, anthemic “Be a Little Bit Braver.’’
Wait a minute, you’re thinking. What happened to Perdita? This is probably a good point to note that “The 101 Dalmatians Musical’’ differs in a few respects from the beloved 1961
There is plenty to look at in this musical version of “Dalmatians’’ because set designer Heidi Ettinger has devised an array of ingenious and colorful flats, and lighting designer Paul Gallo creates evocative effects, especially when Pongo and Missus put out an SOS in “Twilight Barking.’’
Some actual dalmatians make memorable appearances during the show, and a bunch of them scramble out onstage to perform some tricks during the finale. It’s cute. But frankly, I’d rather have heard York sing one more time.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.