It appears that I may have been a tad premature in creating my list of The Worst Musicals of the 2000s. Another worthy addition rolled into town last night for a seven-performance run at Boston's Wang Theater at the Citi Center for the Performing Arts. Upon reflection, I would probably place The 101 Dalmatians Musical at #10, right between Saved and 9 to 5.
Not to be confused with the 1961 animated feature "101 Dalmatians," nor the 1996 film with Glenn Close, this 101 Dalmatians is based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, and has nothing to do with Disney. Which is too bad, because even Disney stage shows at their worst have more dramatic cohesiveness, more interesting songs, and more genuine artistry than the bland, unmemorable musical that BT McNicholl and Dennis DeYoung have slapped together.
If the name Dennis DeYoung sounds familiar, it's probably he was a founding member and songwriter for the band Styx, and was responsible for such bland ballads as "Babe" and "Come Sail Away" as well as the jaw-droppingly awful "Mr. Roboto." The songs in 101 Dalmatians aren't exactly awful, but they're not very memorable either, but rather generic and removable. What's worse, McNicholl doesn't seem to know how to properly set the songs up: the purpose of the numbers is often unclear, and the scenes leading into them are poorly developed.
How did this first draft of a show ever get a full production? The idea for the show is fine, but the book is clumsy and there's not one song that should have made it past a backers' audition. The first act is pedestrian but never dull, getting through the well-worn story in an efficient if uninspired fashion. But act 2 is just plain tedious. The central two dogs, Mr. and Mrs. Pongo, find and rescue their stolen puppies very early in the act, and spend the rest of the show trying to get home. In the meantime, we're subjected to a succession of would-be showstoppers, including "Crime of Our Lives" for the henchmen, a mediocre song with horrid staging. Then, for some reason, in the middle of act 2 the dogs meet up with a band of gypsies who put them into their traveling show. The resulting number, "Spot On," is full of labored dalmatian puns and lots of energetic business, but fails to achieve its desired 11 o'clock-number status.
It's really hard to believe that this show had Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks at the helm, mostly because it's replete with blindingly obvious directorial missteps. For instance, when Pongo and the Mrs. find their pups, they wait patiently upstage until their kids finish the song that they're in the middle of. These are two parents who've just found their kidnapped children, not two yuppies picking their kids up after a play date. In another scene, Cruella DeVille (played with relish by the always delightful Rachel York) busts in through a barn door, then leaves it open behind her. One of the dogs, who's standing right in front of the open door, waits until Cruella is finished singing before bolting. I'm sorry, but that's like Directing 101, folks. The production is also full of lazy dramatic devices, such as a narrator to fill in plot holes, miniature puppets to condense action sequences, and a large illuminated map to show the pilgrim's progress up and down the English countryside.
Still, the production isn't a complete disaster. It's actually pretty neat how they incorporate the real dogs into the show, having them run across the stage before the actors to create a sense of canine continuity. And the production concept of having the humans on stilts and skewing the set from the dogs' perspective was clever and effective. But the show as a whole was pretty darned feeble. Someone might say, "Well, it's just a kids' show." So, does that mean we should suspend critical judgment? I think we should hold children's entertainment to an even higher standard. Anything less would be patronizing and insulting to their intelligence.
The most offensive aspect of the show came at the top of Act 2, when the doggie narrator came out in front of the curtain eating out of a bag of the sponsor's dog food. (I won't even mention the name of the company. They ain't getting any plug from this blogger.) As he munched, he was talking about how it's high in protein, and gives you a shiny coat, or some such blather. Oh, I can just see that marketing meeting:
"OK, folks, let's do some brainstorming. How can we create greater brand synergy here?"
"Could we maybe put our logo on the costumes?"
"No, I think that might just cross the line. We're not a sports team, you know."
"How about a song about the nutritional benefits of our product?"
"I'll have to talk to Dennis and BT about that, but these genuine artistes we're talking about here."
"Well, what if the narrator came out eating kibble at the top of act 2?"
"I love it! Simple, tasteful. Jones, you may just get a promotion for this..."
Die, marketer, die.