With a Disney classic like this, there is no escaping the pressures of keeping the same energy alive for fresh audiences. This musical adaptation of 101 Dalmatians works through this, with some elements that thrive, and others that just miss the mark.
Beginning with an emergence of cast members- firstly the band, and then more- from across the venue, there is no doubt that Regent's Park Open Air Theatre is the perfect place to stage this production. Throughout the show, the space is used effectively from all angles, so regardless of where you're sat, the experience has got that extra flair. Visually overall, the piece looks amazing. An enticing set designed by Colin Richmond immediately brings an impressive aesthetic, with two levels of initial staging, as well as additional areas to the side that allow for even more movement around the auditorium for the actors.
When Pongo and Perdi meet at the park, their owners become drawn to one another too. Danielle (played by Karen Fishwick) and Dominic (Eric Stroud) soon move in together, and the title letters adorning the stage, turn to imitate their new flat. This design choice specifically isn't transformative, but works, given that the location is open air.
It's the use of puppetry that really makes the piece particularly special. Realistic mannerisms are portrayed through talented puppeteers who truly bring to life the pair of pups, as well as other characters, including the illusion of the 101 Dalmatians that are essential to the plot. 'Litterbugs' sees the birth of the canine family, and is the start of their journey from disaster.
Cruella De Vil remains the abominable tyrant she has always been, but her wicked ways don't start off as especially strong as the modernisation brands her as a controversial influencer- a change that, although perhaps relevant, doesn't feel particularly thoughtful within the piece. Furthermore, the inclusion of her car is a great prop, but the alterations don't come across as genuine like they would have, had the style been kept similar to the original. Despite this, Kate Fleetwood plays her excellently, and by 'Für Fur' as the act 1 finale, her elitism is solidified. Another iconic moment follows later with 'I Can Smell Puppy', which demonstrates her prowess as an actor and vocalist.
Generally, some jokes were funny, while others did fall flat, and with no fault of the acting, Jonny Weldon and George Bukhari as brothers Casper and Jasper respectively seemed very cartoon-like, which may have appealed to younger viewers, but it is unclear who the target audience for this production is.
While the first act was a little weaker, the second brings much more. The young company who play puppies Button, Lucky, Patch and Spud are really sweet in their roles, and these dynamics of the staging are used well; notably so when the whole range of dog breed characters appear from the surroundings. A message of hope and unity is shared, which feels like an appropriate one for now, building up to the wonderful finale, with 'One Hundred And One'.
Douglas Hodge is responsible for the score, where the many tracks keep the show flowing, in conjunction with the stage adaptation work of Zinnie Harris and direction by Timothy Sheader. In all, 101 Dalmatians is a fun night out, with an entirely unique offering to theatre, and the ending surprise is guaranteed to make your heart melt too.