Dogs are okay.
It’s not an opinion that I’m very vocal about. Like love of our flag or love of our Lord, puppy love is something that’s simply unquestioned in this country. Recently, on the Jay Leno Show , Chris Rock delineated our newest piety when he joked about the modest level of outrage directed at Roman Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old girl. Rock’s remarks provoked an electronic whiteout of moralizing invective—not for his joke comparing Roman Polanski to O.J. Simpson, but for his joke refusing to compare Polanski to Michael Vick. “Michael Vick must be wondering, ‘What the hell did I do?’" Rock said.
The next morning, about 200 trillion online dog lovers locked down the ALL-CAPS key on their keyboards to remind America’s formerly favorite comedian.
There were other, deeper divides exposed by the reaction to Rock’s comments, but the hysterical nature of the doggie bloggers made something clear that’s been obvious to anybody who’s been a bystander at a dog run or a dog park or, God help us, a doggy date: America is zealously devoted to her canines, and each year this devotion intensifies.
I get it: there are all kinds of reasons man’s best friend deserves the affection—chief among them an unreasoned loyalty on behalf of the dog—but more than one cultural pundit has speculated that, at least on our end, the intensity of the relationship has been stimulated by Hollywood. And even if, as Ralph Ellison suggested in Shadow and Act , Hollywood is only a mirror held up to society, no production company has depicted puppy love quite as successfully as Disney. The biggest doggie franchise of all times is unquestionably Disney’s version of 101 Dalmatians. First released as an animated feature in 1961, it was re-released in 1969, 1979, 1985, and 1991. Another version, starring live-action humans and dogs, was released in 1996 and a sequel to that one was released in 2000. All told, the 101 Dalmatians movies (there was a television cartoon too) have grossed more than $600 million, and that’s not counting DVD sales.
Now, making its worldwide debut at the Orpheum Theatre, brought to you by Purina Dog Chow (not Disney) there is a 101 Dalmatians: The Musical. For the last three weeks, 15 Dalmatians have been sitting in a warmed-up tent in the Orpheum parking lot, and last night these dogs finally had their day.
The strangest bit of fallout from the movie, was that immediately after its debut, there was a run on Dalmatians at America’s pet stores. “And Dalmatians don’t have the best disposition,” according to one of the musical’s producers, Randall Buck. “When it was discovered they didn’t make great pets, thousands of dogs were returned and destroyed.” The musical wanted to include live Dalmatians in order to set themselves apart from other anthropomorphic Broadway productions, like Cats or The Lion King —but in order to avoid another Dalmatian holocaust, they decided against using Dalmatian puppies. They are using rescued animals, and before each show they are passing out literature parsing the challenge Dalmatians pose as pets. They are well aware that there would be ALL-CAPS HELL TO PAY if these types of politically correct steps weren’t taken.
If you are an entertainment lawyer, at this point you might be asking, HOW DID THESE NON-DISNEY GUYS GET THE RIGHTS? Actually, the musical is based on the 1956 young-adult novel written by Dodie Smith. Superficially, there are major deviations from the movie—Pongo’s owner is married in the book and the musical, as is Pongo—but the most important artistic conceit is maintained: the parallel between dogs and humans. Throughout, the dogs, Pongo and Missus Pongo, portrayed by James Ludwig and Catia Ojeda, refer to their owners, Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, portrayed by Mike Masters and Kristen Beth Williams, as their “pets.”
In fact, the producers have gone through great pains to ram this over-thought point home: every actor portraying a human has been compelled to act on stilts. This makes for some wobbly dance routines, and ridiculously baggy costumes, but due to the stilts, the humans are distinguishable from the other much shorter humans (other than Mr. and Missus Pongo, mostly child actors) wearing white pajamas with black spots. (When I asked a producer how he found actors willing to perform under these conditions, he said, without irony regarding a production where the actual Dalmatians travel on their own luxury coach: “actors will do anything .”) I’m sure the stilts will be more manageable after a few performances, but despite the, well, stilted performances, one (I’m sure very foreseeable on the part of the producers) dramatic bonus is a ten-foot-tall Cruella Deville. And Broadway star Rachel York manages to have an incredible amount of fun playing one of the culture’s most iconic cartoon villains ever over-the-top-and-on-stilts.
The songs, written by former Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung (he wrote both “Sailing” and “Lady,” the other guy wrote “Mr. Roboto”) are also very high concept. Speaking to DeYoung before the show, he explained that he divided the tone of the songs between human and dog. The humans, like Cruella and The Dearly’s, sing big, Broadway numbers, like Cruella’s devilish “Hot Like Me,” with nods to jazz, music hall and vaudeville, while the dogs sing more contemporary pop and rock songs, like “Gotta Take Care of Your Human.” The dramatic flow of the scenes is a little uneven, and for a guy famous for his ballads, most of the ballads were a snooze. But still, a couple songs managed to stand out: the reggae/rock opera-ish “Be a Little Big Braver” was catchy, if not full-on infectious, and “Hail to the Chefs” was evocative (maybe a little too evocative) of “Cabaret.”
But here’s the thing: the stilts and the songs are compelling enough, and that’s all they have to be. Because as long as you love Pongo and Missus Pongo—and you really have to, unless you want to be thrown in the river like some kind of apostate non-dog-loving witch—you will care about what happens to them, and you will keep watching. Respectfully, Ludwig and Ojeda don’t screw this up—they sing well, and they have a very appealing, sitcom husband-and-wife thing going on. But the winning premise— dogs: they’re just like us!— is one of the most well-established moral truisms of the age, so well established that the kids in the audience have been conditioned to love it before sitting down for the first scene. It’s veritably Pavlovian. The producers have to know this—with live animals and actors on stilts there are going to be inevitable kinks—but the premise is too good for the production not to be able to overcome a few kinks.
There is one pretty major kink that really does need to be worked out, however. There aren’t enough dogs in 101 Dalmatians . Remember those 15 Dalmatians in the parking lot? They only have two scenes in the entire thing. Granted, they get a huge reaction from the kids when they finally do appear, and an even bigger one during the grand finale, but even to this dog-liker, there could be more dogs in the show.
Don’t freak out; I mean it. Seriously. Easy, there. Back away from the ALL-CAPS.
101 Dalmations continues at the Orpheum Theatre through Oct. 18.