New ‘Dalmatians’ musical has lots of bark and a bit of bite

The musical version of “101 Dalmatians” makes its viewpoint clear in the opening song. Pongo and Missis (Bobby Tyson and Maria Buchanan), out walking with Mr. and Mrs. Dearly in Regent’s Park, address the young audience: “The thing about humans, it’s plain to see/They don’t have a clue about you and me.”

Every theatergoer under puberty can thus identify with the canines, who rescue imperiled pups from fur manufacturer Cruella De Vil. Adults must be content to see themselves in the Dearlys, Cruella’s hapless henchmen or an imprudent nanny, all of them 8-foot puppets whose mouths cannot move. Presumably, none of us see ourselves in Cruella or would say so if we did.

Director Janet Stanford commissioned this show for Imagination Stage, her company outside Washington, D.C., before it became a joint world premiere with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. (Imagination will do it in December.)

In her vision, carried out by composer-lyricist Joan Cushing (“Petite Rouge”) and book writer Martha King de Silva, this adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel needed to balance comedy and peril, sweet moments and sour forebodings of danger.

Consider Cruella (Lucianne Hamilton), who’s bizarrely funny on a physical level: She drives a red sports car into which she barely fits, her face looks pasty white or pale purple under the lights, and her hair resembles a chocolate-vanilla swirl from Dairy Queen.

Yet she sings gleefully about skinning animals alive, and her clothes and couch reveal that skunks and zebras weren’t as fortunate as the dalmatians. A child wept loudly at her first entrance, and the biggest cheer came when a border collie (Jordan Ellis) chased her offstage, his jaws snapping.

This co-production, one of the few that Children’s Theatre has done in recent memory, succeeds visually and aurally.

Matthew Pauli’s slightly inhuman puppets and Milagros Ponce de Leon’s versatile set can be spooky or appealing. Connie Furr Soloman’s half-human, half-shaggy costumes for the animals and David Fillmore’s lights set a whimsical mood, and Jason Romney’s sound design supplies the unseen puppies. I wonder how many people heard all of Cushing’s lyrics, though: I sat in the third row and could barely make out what was said by the actors in puppet heads.

Ellis, Glenn T. Griffin, Robbie Jaeger, Danielle Rhea and Mark Sutton do yeoman service, switching costumes and personalities with alacrity. Except for Tyson, Buchanan and Katy Shepherd (who plays mega-cute pup Cadpig), six actors handle multiple roles. Hamilton, an especially creepy Cruella, also plays the nanny and an impossibly blithe cow.

The show could be slightly shorter. “According to Plan,” a comic number for Cruella’s assistants, slows the piece down – especially when reprised – and seems to have been inserted because some pitying soul said, “Hey, everyone has a song except the henchmen!”

Yet kids rarely fidgeted during the single 90-minute act. They were captivated by the dogs (and one cat), trying to figure out how such gross evil might be conquered, or both.