By Lynn Venhaus
The dogs have their day in an inspired young audience production of Disney’s beloved “101 Dalmatians” at Stages St. Louis.
This 40-minute condensed version sparkles in every aspect, from the cut-to-the-chase story, merry melodies, precious puppies and cheerful cast, who enlist the audience to help them solve the clever caper. You can’t get much higher on the Cute Meter.
Ever since Walt Disney snapped up Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel and turned it into an adorable animated feature released in 1961, which became the highest-grossing film that year, we’ve been smitten with spots. Author Smith used her own dog’s 15-pup litter as the basis for a family-friendly heist tale, then Disney’s animators visually amped up one of the all-time great cartoon villains, Cruella de Vil. She’s just as memorable in this live-action edition.
In a two-tone hair wig, Tyler Jent plays up the exaggerated
mannerisms of Cruella as she tries to buy the puppies, but owners Roger and
Anita turn her down. Little do they realize that she wants their pelts for an
elaborate fur coat and has collected 86 other Dalmatians.
Cruella hatches a diabolical plot to steal the pups by using their favorite treat, Kanine Krunchies, to lure them away. With his comically expressive face accented with bold makeup, Jent is deliciously dastardly in musical numbers “Cruella’s Scheme,” “The Fur Vault” and “My Beautiful Coat.”
She is accompanied by bumbling henchmen Jasper (Ryan Cooper) and Horace (Joshua Roach), who are goofy sight gags on their own. They demonstrate their slapstick skills as they botch the job and succumb to defeat after “The Chase.”
The dog network helps– as does a few other furry critters – using the “Twilight Bark.” With the help of the savvy “Dogs of London – Boxers (Carson Davis, Caden Michael Self), Poodles (Trenay Labelle, Anna Wright), Scotties and Chihuahuas (Laura Ernst and Mitchell Holsclaw) — they nab the burglars, returning the pups to Roger and Anita, and their parents Pongo and Perdita.
Light-hearted Eric Michael Parker and Larissa White are lovely as the couple while Drew Humphrey and Dena DiGiacinto are lively as the proud parental pooches.
Immensely likeable pairs, they lead the upbeat group numbers, with peppy music direction by Tali Allen. That catchy “Cruella de Vil” will again be stuck in your head. Their fine voices blend in sweet harmony and captivate the audience, young and old, as they encourage interaction.
Laura Ernst plays the kind Nanny besides donning doggie costumes, with Jacob Flekier as Sergeant Tibbs and Mitchell Holsclaw doubles as a police officer.
In addition to professional actors, twelve students from Stages Performing Arts Academy are included in the cast as puppies. Among the house brood are Thomas Woodrow as Pepper, Luke Swaller as Patch, Hallie Fisher as Penny, Aaron (AJ) Bentley as Spot and Sophie Gorgen as Dot, with Arden Dickson and Dan Wolfe.
Director Peggy Taphorn has kept the show breezy and choreographed the dances to be appealing and fun, starting out with a “Dalmatian Conga” and wrapping it up with “Dalmatian Plantation” before the finale.
With the same attention to detail that they put into the mainstage productions, Stages’ crackerjack creative team has crafted a charming and delightful show suitable for youngsters and just as enjoyable for the adults who accompany them.
Visually, scenic designer James Wolk has drawn warm and whimsical rooms in a storybook way, and the smaller set neatly fits inside the current mainstage show, with “The Boy from Oz” light grid framing the stage. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design takes advantage of the bright color scheme.
Snazzy outfits were designed with flair by resident costume designer Brad Musgrove, and every familiar character is immediately identifiable. With his penchant for glittery over-the-top garments, he has a ball with Cruella’s flamboyant ruby-and-fur (fake) diva attire.
Each puppy, covered in black-and-white print, is distinct to bring out their personality, whether it’s a hat or a piece of their ensemble that helps them stand out. A bow tie! A propeller cap! Those darling little tails!
This short-and-sweet affair is a jolly good time in old London town, and you’ll be enchanted with puppy power – and the expert human performers who bring this entertaining musical to merry life.
Stages St. Louis presents Disney’s “101 Dalmatians”as the Emerson Family Theatre Series from June 18 to June 30 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood. For showtimes, tickets or more information, visit www.StagesStLouis.org.