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Shelter dogs shine in ‘101 Dalmatians’ musical

It's a wags-to-riches story: For a new live stage version of "The 101 Dalmatians Musical," the show's four-legged stars were plucked mostly from shelters. Soon, they'll crisscross the country in a tricked-out tour bus and boast a producer who has worked with David Copperfield, Janet Jackson, Barry Manilow and Britney Spears.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There are no divas among the cast of "The 101 Dalmatians Musical," but plenty of stars. Take Rascal, the puppy with a broken leg who was rescued from the side of a road.

A late addition to the cast of more than a dozen dogs — most from shelters — Rascal has become "the charmer of the bunch," said animal trainer Joel Slaven.

"I thought, 'Just what I need — a 4-month-old puppy with a broken leg.' But he was my guy," Slaven said. "He goes out with the big dogs and he watches them. He's learning from them and he's like, 'I can do this. This is what I was meant to be.' "

The shelter-dog stars of "The 101 Dalmatians Musical" got a second chance with a new home on a Florida ranch, a rock star-style tour bus, top-billed roles in a stage show, and, in all likelihood, a place in the audience's heart.

It's hard not to fall in love with these dogs — any dogs, actually — on stage, said lead producer Lee Marshall, whose track record includes shows with David Copperfield, Janet Jackson and Britney Spears, and Broadway's "Jekyll & Hyde." But dogs are almost universally accompanied by humans and taking cues from them, which he said can take away a little magic.

For this show, which embarks on a national tour this month starting in Minneapolis, the three-minute finale is all dogs — performing what is essentially a song-and-dance act to a tune by composer Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame.

"It's just jawdropping," Marshall said. "This is a choreographed number they do all by themselves."

(It should be noted that in the bulk of the show, though, the Dalmatians are actually portrayed by actors, a la "Cats.")

'Outgoing, playful, confident dogs'Slaven started looking for Dalmatians back in January using a network of shelters and rescue groups, who were, he said, hesitant at first to be his partners.

After the live-action Disney "101 Dalmatians" came out in 1996 and its sequel in 2000, there was a rush on the black-and-white spotted dogs as family pets — a role this breed is not necessarily suited for, Slaven explains. That meant a flooding of shelters a few years later, and canine rescuers weren't eager for that to happen again, he said.

"The toughest thing I've ever done is finding the dogs," he said. "When the movies came out, they were overbred and that made the breed, which already has some health problems, even worse. People got the dogs, couldn't afford vet bills, found the dogs untrainable, or didn't get along with kids. Shelters, Humane Societies and rescue groups don't want anyone to use these dogs for entertainment, and they don't want to help someone who's going to do this again."

But Slaven said he persuaded some that he would use the dogs' celebrity as a teaching tool.

"I knew we'd have to do it differently than the movie. We have to explain about the stars that, just because they're cute, doesn't mean you should get one for the kids tomorrow."

The traits Slaven, who often trains animals for theme-park shows, was looking for in the dogs included stage presence and the ability to live in a pack, not things usually at the top of the list for families, he said.

"These are the outgoing, playful, confident dogs — the dogs that aren't going to be happy laying on someone's couch each day," he said. "They're the ones chewing and barking because they want to be doing something."

He has given them plenty to do. Until last week when they boarded their tricked-out tour bus to head to Minnesota for final stage rehearsals, they were up at 6 a.m. at Slaven's facility in St. Cloud, Fla., for a walk and then they were off to a day of exercise, rehearsals, confidence-building classes so they wouldn't be fearful of any surfaces and the occasional drive on a flatbed truck so they'd be used to moving vehicles.

They also had "fame training," including desensitization to lights, wheelchairs and noise. "I've got a drum set going because we'll have a live orchestra at the show," Slaven said. "We have jam nights and bring the dogs there and play with them. Everything is made positive for the dogs and everything they are trained to do is so they can have fun with it."

Buses more pleasant than planesNow that they are on the road, the dogs have two rehearsals, playtime in the afternoon, grooming sessions and, of course, media appearances.

Rascal, along with the 14 other dogs, will need to find permanent owners after the tour, which is slated to run through at least June. However, Slaven, who already has two yellow Labrador retrievers, has committed to bringing back to his ranch any dogs who don't find a home.

Until then, "home" is the bus. Kennels line one side (with living quarters in the rear for two full-time trainers), with a pet-care area for bathing and grooming. An awning pops up alongside the vehicle for shade and there are attachable pens for outside time.

"I've been in show biz my whole life. ... This is a much easier way for an entertainer to travel than an airplane every night," said Lee. "Showering on a bus for humans isn't the best experience, but I think it will be much more pleasant for the dogs."