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Different breed of star hits stage in '101 Dalmatians'

By Matt Frisch, CNN
Dalmatians stand on training boxes during sessions to prepare for "The 101 Dalmatians Musical," touring the U.S. through 2010.
Dalmatians stand on training boxes during sessions to prepare for "The 101 Dalmatians Musical," touring the U.S. through 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Classic book by Dodie Smith gets musical adaptation for the stage
  • Fifteen Dalmatians starring in the musical
  • "Almost all of the animals were rescued," trainer says
  • Rachel York plays Cruella De Vil; Tony winner Jerry Zaks directing
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(CNN) -- The stars of "The 101 Dalmatians Musical" are really a spoiled bunch. They travel in luxury in their own van, are pampered 24/7 and have all their meals catered.

No different from the usual celebrity, you say? In this case, the stars of the show also have to be walked two times a day.

Fifteen Dalmatians go onstage to entertain audiences twice during the musical. They have been trained to do choreographed routines, without any visible human assistance.

"To my knowledge, no one has ever put that on a Broadway stage before," said producer Lee Marshall, referring to this unique combination of actors and live animals.

The dogs were found over a lengthy four-month search, taking producers all across the country.

"Almost all of the animals were rescued," said animal trainer Joel Slaven. "We did not go out and order puppies from breeders to do this project. We went literally from New York to California, to almost every Dalmatian rescue group in the country, and so many humane societies and rescue shelters, to find these dogs."

Trainer Joel Slaven shows off some of the Dalmatians outside the musical show's traveling bus and trailer.
Trainer Joel Slaven shows off some of the Dalmatians outside the musical show's traveling bus and trailer.

Slaven said many of the dogs were disowned by previous owners, citing "behavioral reasons." However, he said he was able to create the show around each of the dogs' personalities.

For example, one dog starring in the show was abandoned by its previous owners, who claimed the Dalmatian was constantly chewing and eating up everything in the house.

"We needed a dog that wanted to pull things across the stage," Slaven said. "Well now, he gets to pull things and chew things, and he gets chicken for it, and he gets played with for it, and he gets a tennis ball for it."

"The 101 Dalmatians Musical" is touring the country through the end of 2010, including a three-week engagement in April at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Rachel York stars in the show as the evil Cruella De Vil.
Rachel York stars in the show as the evil Cruella De Vil.

The show stars Drama Desk Award winner Rachel York as the evil Cruella De Vil and is directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks. It also includes a crew of 9- to 10-year-old human actors playing Dalmatian "puppies."

Fans of the animated Disney film and more recent live-action movies will be able to recognize the story, but the producers chose to base the plot instead on Dodie Smith's classic children's book, which is told from the dogs' perspective.

The adult actors are required to act on 15-inch stilts in oversize and elaborate costumes to create the illusion the story is being told from the Dalmatians' point of view. York described this challenge as "absolute insanity" at first, but over time the cast has pulled it off.

Slaven said that once the show ends, the Dalmatians will be set up for adoption. Purina Dog Chow, the official sponsor of the show, even announced that it would give away a year's worth of free dog food to families willing to adopt one of the pooches.

Actors play some of the dogs, while cast members on stilts portray the "humans."
Actors play some of the dogs, while cast members on stilts portray the "humans."

York said she is pleased with how everything has gone, starting with the first performance last month in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"It went really well," she said. "It was wonderful to hear the reactions of children responding to certain lines or certain characters onstage. ... I think it was even better than we anticipated."

The musical is tailored toward animal lovers, of course, but the show's creators insist families will enjoy it based on the positive message alone, just in time for the holiday season.

"It's a love story, it's a family story," Marshall said. "It's all about the mom and the dad and their children -- how they were born and [then] separated and reunited."

This story -- in real life and on the stage -- seems to have a happy ending for everyone involved.

"Most of the dogs we have are rescued, and if we wouldn't have rescued them, [they] probably would have not had a happy life," Marshall said. "Now they ride around in a rolling doggy palace. ... The dogs are pampered and played with. It's an amazing thing, actually."

 
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