Man’s best friend? A million spots? A crazy lady bent on making fur coats out of the dogs’ hides? Check, check, and check!
Cruella de-Vil, the purple-headed puppy eater who has delighted on screen for over 50 years, finally brings her mania to the stage. In Imagination Stage’s holiday offering, Pongo, the Missis, and their brood outplot, outsmart, and outrun Cruella and her bumbling henchmen once again.
Disney made 101 Dalmatians—the puppy-napping turned rescue—a classic and a hit, three times over, fostering America’s love of the Dearly’s, their pack of dogs, and black and white.
So, as Imagination Stage’s version opens with an ode to man from his canine companion, singing that humans make great pets, it’s clear this show has ambition in spades (or spots). After all, scenes occur across a large swath of the English countryside, displayed by light-up maps, as Pongo (Jonathan Atkinson) and Missis (Caroline Wolfson) race through a treacherous landscape, 99 pups in tow, from Ms de-Vil. Will they make it home alive?
Actors play all the people as towering puppets. Others romp around as a pack of dogs, shaking their “tails” as if they are wagging plumes. The stage gets busy and feels overwhelmed, even as the actors use the full theatre—aisles and all. It gets awkward at times. All those puppies!
Sarah Beth Pfiefer, under that flashy, fake fur coat, is marvelous—a master of voice and quick to keep her bobbling body from toppling over. The Twilight Bark crew, a band of misfit pooches aiding the Dalmatian brood, also master zany character quirks. The Colonel (Vaughn Irving), draws his words like a shaggy Lee Marvin à la The Dirty Dozen (or Delta Force, depending on how old you are) mashed with his Oscar-winning drunk from Cat Ballou.
His trusty cat sidekick, the Lieutenant (Emily Kester), is also a purse-full of fun. Together, they bring the few grownup laughs to the show. I saw a couple of adults dozing across the stage, reminding me that the best kid-friendly performances also offer something for those of us past adolescence. 101 Dalmatians depends on just a few nods to dated technology and shopping venues to keep the parent crowd chuckling.
Closes January 11, 2014
4908 Auburn Avenue
1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $10 – $30
Fridays thru Sundays, with some additional dates
And the climatic chase sequence needs more speed or action. It seemed to drone on. And on. And on.
Still Saul (Vaughn Irving) and Jasper (Christopher Rudy)—Cruella’s co-conspirators—wobble through the show with plenty of goofiness, while all the dogs are as earnest as we all imagine our own canines to be.
The music is lively. The puppets comical. The set lovely, like something pulled from a 1950’s classic children’s book. And, despite such a despicable backstory (puppies skinned to make fur coats is a terrifying premise), the mood is as light and warm as a Christmas Eve gathering of family, furred or un-furred (preferably both).
101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith; . Book by Martha King De Silva . Music and Lyrics by Joan Cushing . Directed by Janet Stanford . Featuring: Jonathan Atkinson, Ayanna Hardy, Tyler Herman, Vaughn Irving, Emily Kester, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Christopher Rudy, Daniel Scott Sonntag, and Caroline Wolfson. Production: Deborah Jacobson (Music Director); Ilona Kessell (Choreographer); Jocelyn Callister (Stage Manager); Milagros Ponce de Leon (Scenic Designer); David M Fillmore, Jr. (Lighting Designer); Jason Romney (Sound Designer); Connie Furr Soloman (Costume Designer); Matthew Pauli (Puppet Designer); Zachary Gilbert (Assistant Lighting Designer); and Daniel Scott Sonntag (Dance Captain). Presented by Imagination Stage in Association with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.