Jan. 27 2010 12:00 AM

Dalmatians an uneven adaptation of famous tale


101 Dalmatians: The Musical” chucks theadage “never work with kids or animals” out the window, gleefully filling the Wharton Center stage with apple-cheeked young actors and real dogs sprinting from one side of the stage to the other.

There may be logic behind that maxim. Not that “101 Dalmatians,” playing through Sunday at the Wharton Center, isn’t entertaining, but it certainly requires more than an average helping of suspension of disbelief. And forgiveness. (Two words: canine malfunction.)

This musical follows Dodie Smith’s book “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” pretty faithfully: Sadistic fur-lover Cruella De Vil kidnaps her friends’ Dalmatian puppies and plans to turn them into coats, along with 87 other puppies she has sequestered on her estate. The puppies’ parents catch wind of the plot and initiate a jailbreak. Straightforward enough, right? But those acquainted with the Disney cartoon or the live-action remake star ring Glenn Close may be a little confused: Why is there a third adult Dalmatian? How come they only let the real dogs on stage for a few seconds at a time? Why is everyone on stilts?

That last one is where things got a little awkward. The “human” actors are all on stilts, so the “dog” actors don’t have to go crawling around on all fours, creating a different-ness between the two worlds. So far so good.

However, musicals kind of rely on nimble footwork to keep things rolling, and there’s only so much softshoeing you can do when you’re balancing three feet off the ground and hobbled with clown-sized shoes.

None of this is the actors’ fault, of course.

Rachel York doesn’t so much play Cruella De Vil as she does let the character possess her. She does away with the characters’ famous smoking habit but keeps her trademark Katharine Hepburn-sounding accent intact. Every second she’s on stage, kids giggled and adults nodded knowingly — but she’s sadly underused. Likewise, the use of real Dalmatians created a disconnect in viewers: Whenever a dog dashed through the action, everyone “ooh”-ed and “aah”-ed, distracting from what was going on.

The music is a little spotty. For every number that works (“Twilight Barking,” “Hot Like Me”), there’s a corresponding clunker (the snoozer “My Sweet Child” and “Be a Little Braver,” which is… a reggae number? really?). Also, due to unclear costuming it’s not always apparent what kind of dog is addressing the protagonists (and sometimes, what kind of animal entirely — the program seemed to imply there was a horse somewhere in there.)

And the script itself is rife with headscratchers, rushed plot points and unfortunate occurrences. For crying out loud, didn’t anyone stop and think, “Gee [SPOILER ALERT], maybe at the end we shouldn’t have our anti-heroine screaming as she’s burning alive, then switch and have her laugh devilishly as she realizes she’s going to Hell?”

"101 Dalmatians: The Musical"

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29 and Saturday, Jan. 30; 2 p.m.

Jan. 30; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Jan. 31

Wharton Center

Michigan State University