REVIEW: The 101 Dalmatians (Broadway in Chicago)

Children’s classic turned stage tragedy

 James Ludwig & The Company

Broadway in Chicago presents:

The 101 Dalmatians Musical

Based on “101 Dalmatioas” by Dodie Smith
Book adapted by BT McNicholl
Music by Dennis DeYoung
Lyrics by DeYoung and McNicholl
Directed by Jerry Zaks

Through February 28th (more info, tickets)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Lest you confuse it with the classic Disney animated movie “101 Dalmatians,” the marquee in front of the Cadillac Palace proclaims that The 101 Dalmatians Musical  is within. Although to be sure, 1961’s more simply titled version also had music.  But that nearly 50-year-old gem is to the new Broadway in Chicago touring production what a real dog is to a pet rock. There is more suspense, heart and humor in the opening credits of 101 Dalmatians the movie than there is in the whole of The 101 Dalmatians the musical. 

Kristen Beth Williams - ect To be fair, my 8-year-old consultant on the project liked the stage show. But he wasn’t thrilled, as he was with Lookingglass Alice at Lookingglass, swept wholly away as he was with the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol or completely delighted as he was with Mary Poppins. Kids are smart – they can intuit when something’s being dumbed down for their supposed benefit. And make no mistake: Novelist Dodie Smith’s tale of noble canines and evil dognappers has been dumbed down horrendously. The original (both book and movie) were clever, cute and genuinely heart-warming. The touring show is shrill, condescending and precious. It is also a crass, obvious and cheaply produced attempt to make money. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with shows whose raison d’être is to make money. But when the fiscal concerns are more apparent than the artistic concerns, you’ve got a dog that don’t hunt. 

The cheapness of The101 Dalmatians Musical is apparent in both the cast and the production values. Led by a screechy Sara Gettelfinger as fur fetishist Cruella (replacing the originally announced Rachel York in the role), the ensemble performs at the level one might expect from a middle school variety show. It’s an Equity show, but you’d never guess that based on Warren Carlyle’s charmless choreography, Dennis DeYoung’s forgettable score and the mugging acting style favored by director Jerry Zaks.

The brief moments when the canine caper transcends the abrasive mediocrity that dominates the production arrive with the real Dalmatians. There’s a tease at the end of the first act, as the pooches pose in a tableau that sends the audience out to intermission on a high note. The dogs also get the spotlight (no pun intended) in an epilogue of clever animal tricks. Opening night, however, that final scene only highlighted the sloppiness of the humans involved with the show. This happened when a Dalmatian bounded out, got up on her hind legs and seemed to unfurl a window awning by turning a wheel of some sort. The illusion would have been pleasantly diverting if the person actually manipulating the window treatment had stayed out of sight. She didn’t, cruelly stealing the dog’s sunshine.

Catia Ojeda, Jeff Scott Carey & James Ludwig Madeleine Doherty, Mike Masters, Kristen Beth Williams, Erin Maguire & James Ludwig
The Company 3 The Company

As for the rest of the two-legged ensemble, director Zaks has the cast collectively subscribing to the louder-is-better school of acting. Every character is underwritten and broadly (over)played. Book writer BT McNicholl seems oblivious to the fact that character counts and simplicity doesn’t mean stupid, not even in the most fundamental children’s picture books. (Look at Where the Wild Things Are – a scant paragraph of prose, and a world entirely of unforgettable characters)  McNicoll reduces Smith’s story to a parade of flashy costumes and obvious punchlines.  Curiously, he doesn’t skimp on the sado-masochistic elements of the tale. One expects some frank talk about skinning puppies and turning them into gloves. But what’s with stressing Cruella’s violent death and having her cackle with unbridled glee as she discovers that she loves the sensation of flames devouring her flesh? Joel Blum & Emma ZaksFor a kid’s show, that’s just weird. And unless your name is Lemony Snicket, not entirely appropriate.

As for the corps of children playing the puppies, they’re burdened both with that drearily dumb book and choreography that will provide audience members of a certain age a flashback to Zoom, that ‘70s show that captivated Junior High School Nation back in the day with its Up-With-People-Lite dance routines and cereal box brand of relentless perkiness. The Dalmatian Musical kids are capable, but at Broadway in Chicago prices, one expects an ensemble that transcends your basic middle school aesthetic.

On the plus side, The 101 Dalmatians Musical does have a clever design concept. The actors playing humans are all on stilts, which provides the audience with a dogs’-eye-perspective on matters. Robert Morgan’s costumes and Heidi Ettinger’s oversize sets are original. And distracting. After the initial laugh was over, we found we spent an inordinate amount of time pondering where the actors’ real legs ended and where their stilt legs began. Also, how those gigantic shoes worked. Moreover, choreographer Carlyle can only do so much with performers on stilts, so the dancing never gets much more elaborate than a JV squad pom-pom routine.

Finally, there’s the puppies not played by kids. As newborns, the Dalmatians look like dead mops. Which, as descriptions go, might not make sense to those who haven’t seen The 101 Dalmatians Musical. But look like dead mops they do. And it is oh so very difficult to invest in a story that begins with the premise that one should care about a basket of fugly cleaning equipment.  


The 101 Dalmatians Musical continues through Feb. 28 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 154 W. Randolph. Tickets are $18 $85, more if you want the Broadway in Chicago Concierge experience. For more information click here or go to or or by calling 800/775-2000.   

James Ludwig & The Company 2

View (2010-02) The 101 Dalmations Musical

Goodman Theatre’s top-notch recruitments

In the world of professional sports (and college sports for that matter), recruitment is everything.  Entire sportscasts are dedicated to the subject of  which team has recruited which top sports talent.  Additionally, successful recruitment is often accredited to successful seasons.

Though the arts are often caricatured as the antithesis of sports, ironically, recruitment of artistic talent can be just as important to successful theatre seasons as they are in sports..

For their upcoming season, the Goodman Theatre has snatched up (i.e. recruited) a number of creative stars:

  • Anna Shapiro – fresh from her Tony Award for August: Osage County, will direct the world premiere of Regina Taylor’s new play, Magnolia, a contemporary take on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. (production dates: March 14-April 19, 2009)
  • Jeff Daniels, known for his roles in Terms of Endearment” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, has been signed on to star in the world premiere musical-fantasy Turn of the Century, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.  (Production dates: September 19-October 26, 2008 )
  • Broadway legend Tommy Tune (9-time Tony Award winner) has been recruited to direct Turn of the Century.  Broadway veteran Rachel York has been cast as the play’s female lead.

I have great confidence that Goodman’s top-notch recruiting will secure a very successful season, both artistically and financially.

h/t Hedy Weiss