After two years, 101 Dalmatians finally opens at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
By Jay Darcy
Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians has had many incarnations. Most famously adapted into the animated Disney film, One Hundred and One Dalmatians – itself, adapted into the live-action 101 Dalmatians, and later rebooted into the live-action Cruella – its most recent incarnation takes the form of a stage musical.
The novel was first adapted into a (short-lived) musical in the US back in 2009, which was called The 101 Dalmatians Musical.
A huge fan of 101 Dalmatians – especially the story’s antagonist, Cruella De Vil – I have been excited for this new British musical since it was first announced. It was originally set to premiere in 2020, but the pandemic pushed it back to 2021, and then again to 2022!
What makes this new production is it’s being performed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – and the story is, itself, set in Regent’s Park! This adds a sense of realism to what is otherwise a whimsical production.
I was down in London whilst the show was still in its previews – only its third showing – so the end-product of the musical is, no doubt, stronger and better than the show I saw. That said, whilst the show I saw was not perfect, it was clearly the early stage of what has the potential to be a piquant production.
As soon as we stepped foot into the theatre – I say into, but the theatre is outside – it was clear that the production value of the show would be immense. The set, which is immersed into the trees, is elaborate, complete with staircases that lead to another level.
There were also huge letters onstage, which spelled “101 Dalmatians”. I had wondered if the letters would be present throughout the entire show, but, to my surprise (and delight), the letters had different (wallpaper) prints on the back and were used to create setting/scenery for different scenes. The “D” and “s” of “Dalmatians” was fixed at either side of the stage, whilst the ginormous “101” is fixed at the top/back of the stage – with the “0 being made to look like a dog collar!
Indeed, this production’s design is dazzling – and the attention to detail is awe-inspiring. From the tremendous puppets to Cruella’s stimulating costumes (and there were many).
The puppetry is perhaps the standout star of this production. The adult dogs were played by actors who stood at the back, with their legs covered in dalmatian print, whilst a puppeteer walked alongside them, controlling the front of the dogs. The dogs’ movements were so natural and realistic; you quickly forgot there were actors and puppeteers controlling them.
Other memorable things about the production are the two cathartic scenes in which Cruella is tortured. One of them sees Cruella crash her car, whilst the other sees her electrocuted – in the cage she built for the dogs. Whilst they were both dynamically done, the car crash scene was excellently executed.
Members of the ensemble surrounded Kate Fleetwood, who played Cruella (perfectly, but more on her later), holding up pieces that made up a car. When the car crashed, the actors pretended to go flying with the set, which represented the car breaking apart. Other members of the ensemble pulled out fake arms, hair, eyes, and even a tongue! It was wonderfully cartoonish – and seemed to be a nod to this very scene in the animated Disney film.
The musical was very family-friendly – understandably, for it’s a story that children are very familiar with (especially because of the Disney film), and the school holidays have just began. Whilst this might be a little disappointing for adult fans (like myself), there is plenty for adults to appreciate – on top of the aforementioned production value. As is often the case in family-friendly productions, there is some subtle adult humour, e.g. Cruella saying, “That’s what I call big stick energy!”
As a huge fan of the story (and the Disney film), I was a little disappointed by the family-friendly tone of the production, but it knows its target audience, and it does a wonderful job of updating a classic story, without reinventing it.
Indeed, the musical’s relevance was achieved by bringing it into the 21st century. Not only is it set in modern times, it also dealts with contemporary issues. Most noticeably, Cruella De Vil is no longer an aged fashion designer, clinging on to a thread of glamour and desperate to create the “perfect” coat – but, rather, a fame-hungry influencer, willing to do anything for attention and clout (desperate to create the “perfect” coat)!
The story was also quite sociopolitical – heck, it even touched upon the idea of racial purity, what with the mention of cross-breed dogs. The different animals represented diversity, with one of the animals asking, “Aren’t we stronger if we work together?”
Cruella, meanwhile, seemed to represent a provocative political figure, one who arouses endless controversy to stay relevant – and to garner support from those susceptible to the power of personality. For instance, when Cruella is videoed beating the two adult dalmatians – presumably a nod to the power of mobile phones and social media, especially when it comes to exposing egregious crimes, e.g. the murder of George Floyd – she, to her shock, received a great deal of support from people who despise dogs.
It was very cleverly done, however, maybe a little misplaced and unrealistic, because if there’s one thing that everybody agrees on – it’s dogs! There are actually plenty of right-wing and far-right figures who despise minorities but adore animals – some of them are even animal rights activists, e.g. Brigitte Bardot. What’s that all about?
That said, the dogs arguably became a metaphor for ethnic and racial minorities, many of whom are dehumanised in real life – or even portrayed as animals (e.g. the racist portrayal of Black people as apes, i.e. less evolved).
Some of the political undertones were understated and might have even gone over the heads of many audience-members, whilst a few were a bit more on-the-nose – though still well-done and never preachy. It wasn’t the most skilled social commentary you’ll ever see, but the creatives must be applauded for their delicate but intelligent handling of sensitive issues in a fun, family-friendly production.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre do a good job of tackling issues in a fun way that doesn’t preach to the choir. Take their most recent (acclaimed) production of Legally Blonde, which cast a “plus-sized”, Black actress in the lead role of Elle Woods – who is traditionally played by a stick-thin actress with skin white as snow. That casting alone changed the story and its scope.
Like Legally Blonde, this musical was mostly a comedy, but there were some very touching moments. The scene in which one of the frozen puppies is presumed dead and their parents and siblings try to bring them back to life was incredibly emotional – especially for a musical targeted to children. Having a child play the puppy made it even more emotional – I’m sure it had some parents thinking about how devastated they’d be in these circumstances.
Then there was the final scene, where the human adults count the dogs, and one of them says, “101” – which prompted an exclaim of “yes” from a grown man in the audience, which had much of the audience laughing. I usually hate unsolicited audience involvement, but this man simply said what we were all feeling after en unexpected emotional rollercoaster of a show.
Whilst much of the acting was merely satisfactory – as is often the case in pantomime-y productions, for the scrips don’t allow for striking performances – Olivier and Tony nominee Kate Fleetwood was perfectly cast as the contemporised Cruella De Vil.
Fleetwood has a long list of credits, the most notable being EastEnders, Vanity Fair, Harry Potter, Macbeth (film), London Road (original cast), Les Mis (film), Philomena, The Widower, Star Wars, Beirut, Victoria, Brave New World, Fate: The Winx Saga, and The Wheel of Time. She was nominated for an Olivier for London Road and a Tony for Macbeth.
She lived up to the excitement over her casting, playing the iconic villain to perfection and rocking every single costume she was given. The closing moments of Act 1 saw her wear a stunning white fur coat – much like the yellow fur coat she dons in the Disney film – whilst members of the ensemble, each donning white fur coats with huge black spots, surround her. Fleetwood then made her way to the stop of the stairs, and they followed her, bending over and creating what appeared to be a monstrously long, dalmatian-fur coat!
Her London accent was amazing, albeit (intentionally) annoying. However, Cruella’s signature cigarette-scarred, croaky, husky voice sure is missed – as is her catchphrase, “Anita, dahling!” That accent is very dated, though, and probably wouldn’t have worked so well in this modern production – though it might have been a good way to show Cruella’s disconnect with normal people and real life.
The worst thing about the production, however, is one of the most important: its songs. The original musical was criticised for having a fun but forgettable score. Sadly, this production is very much the same – the music is not at all memorable; there isn’t a single standout song – in fact, I can’t remember any of the tunes.
Whilst previews give productions time to perfect any problems, I don’t imagine the creatives are going to rewrite the entire score ahead of press night, so whilst future shows might be more solid, the score is unlikely to improve.
Whilst the musical is sorely let down by its mediocre score, the fun-but-clever script and fabulous design deserve great praise. No production is perfect – especially not in the mind of a critic (heck, I even have problems with Hamilton) – but this production offers more to praise than it does criticise. It’s a fun, family-friendly show, perfect for the summer holidays, with affordable tickets. The theatre, itself, is wonderful (so long as it doesn’t rain) – and it’s pretty poetic seeing a show set in Regent’s Park at Regent’s Park.
101 Dalmatians runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 28th August.