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.
Photo by Peter WochniakIn 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
Photo by Peter WochniakThe 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
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.
Photo by Peter WochniakStages 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,
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.