15 dalmatians star in rousing new musical based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 book

By Helena Sung
Updated October 27, 2009 09:13 PM

It’s been made into a Walt Disney movie and live action film starring Glenn Close, but you’ve never seen the 101 Dalmatians story told quite like this. Embarking on a nationwide tour that kicks off on Oct. 13 in Minneapolis, The 101 Dalmatians Musical is a rousing Broadway-style show featuring 15 real dalmatians who were rescued from shelters and rescue groups across the country.

Staying true to the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, the musical tells the story – from the dogs’ perspectives – of fictional character Cruella de Vil’s nefarious quest to make a coat from the splendid spotted fur of dalmatians.

“All the humans onstage are standing on 15-in. stilts and the set is designed to show the world from the dog’s eye view,” the show’s producer, Lee Marshall, tells PEOPLEPets.com. Human actors playing Pongo and Missus, the lead dalmatian characters whose puppies are stolen by Cruella de Vil (played by Rachel York, above), are dressed in stylish, spotted outfits, while similarly dressed children portray the puppies.

“At first, when they asked me to help with the show, I said no,” professional animal trainer Joel Slaven says. “When the 101 Dalmatians movie came out [in 1996], everybody saw that movie and ran out and bought a dalmatian without giving it a whole lot of thought, resulting in thousands of the dogs to end up in shelters.”

Dalmatians, explains Slaven, are very high-energy dogs who are big and require lots of attention, exercise and a lifetime commitment. “My company [Joel Slaven Professional Animals] is known for taking care of our animals for their whole lives once we adopt them. We use them for a while for entertainment and they are ambassadors for animals in shelters. I’m all about saving animals and finding homes for them.”

After talking to the producers and learning that Purina Dog Chow, the show’s sponsor, was adamant about using rescue dogs, Slaven agreed to get involved. “We realized it was an opportunity to turn this thing around, and instead of promoting people going out and buying dalmatians for pets, we could actually educate the public on what they need to do if they’re going to get any dog for a pet,” says Slaven. (A note slipped into each Playbill distributed to audience members will explain the health-related issues, as well as the time, expense and space required to care for a dalmatian.)

Beginning in January, Slaven and his team of trainers traveled the country for six months, visiting shelters and rescue groups searching for dalmatians. “We were looking for dogs who were confident, secure, social, and not shy or timid,” Slaven says. They found 15 dogs with the right stuff. Some of the dogs were emaciated or obese; a few had heartworm. The youngest dalmatian, 9-month-old, Rascal, had a broken leg and was abandoned at a veterinary clinic at just 4 months old. “The owner said, ‘I ain’t coming to get him,’ ” Slaven says. Vets fixed Rascal’s broken leg with a steel pin, and Slaven brought him to live at his training facility in Florida. “It was his personality,” Slaven says of why he chose such a young dog. “He was playful and just bouncing off the walls.”

For months, Slaven and his five trainers worked with the 15 dogs they had found, devoting most of their initial time to building the dogs’ confidence and bonding with them. In the second phase, trainers began teaching the dogs to perform specific tasks. In The 101 Dalmatians Musical, the dogs take to the stage at the end of Act One and for the show’s finale, in which they cavort in a choreographed set of movements. “I don’t see how this musical is not going to be a big hit,” says Slaven.

The show’s lively music is written by Dennis DeYoung, a founding member of the legendary band Styx. “This is not simply a kids’ show by any means,” DeYoung tells PEOPLEPets.com. “It’s a show that adults will enjoy because it touches on the idea of true family values. That’s kind of a cliché with some people, but it’s about how families need to love each other and pull together in times of crises.”

As The 101 Dalmatians Musical tours the country, the dogs will be riding in style in a giant, purple, customized tour bus outfitted for the animal actors. “There’s no doubt the dogs are having fun,” says Slaven, adding that the dogs will be available for adoption after the tour ends. “They’ve never had this before. They didn’t have good lives, never had good veterinary care or relationships with people. It’s nice to see their lives now.”

For a schedule of tour dates and tickets, visit The 101 Dalmatians Musical Web site.