It was an assignment sure to give you shivers: Interview Cruella De Vil, the grand villainess of Disney's "101 Dalmatians" . . . when she's fresh from an emergency root canal.

So, with icy fingers I dialed Cruella's number and waited nervously for the blast of bitter cold I knew would come from the other end of the line.

Click. Someone picks up the phone. It's her.

"Hi! My grandma said you called."

Cruella has a granny?

OK, I'll come clean. This fur-crazed, puppy-terrorizing baddie isn't the real Cruella, either from the animated or live-action Disney versions. Not even Close (sorry). It's Stephanie LaRiviere, the 26-year-old professional figure skater who plays Cruella in Walt Disney's World on Ice show.

Unlike recent World on Ice editions that were largely scene-by-scene reenactments of a selected Disney film, this two-hour spectacle features vignettes from several Disney movies ("101 Dalmatians," "The Jungle Book," "Cinderella" and "The Little Mermaid") linked by cameos by the entertainment giant's "fab five" plus one: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy and his hipster son, Max. Produced by Kenneth Feld, this 15th edition of Walt Disney's World on Ice opens today and runs through Jan. 5 at the Pond of Anaheim.

But back to Cruella. If our talk from her family home in Calgary, Alberta, was any proof, we're happy to report that this Canadian skater is nothing like the original Ms. De.

Despite the dental work (that part was true), she's way cheerier than the overdressed lunatic she says she's come to love.

"Cruella is a neat role because she has so many traits," said LaRiviere, who got to know her character through repeated viewings of the animated "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" during the ice show's staging.

"She's evil and she's humorous and she's strong. She's even got a little sex appeal to her, in a tacky kind of way."

Since the live-action version starring Glenn Close was released this fall, LaRiviere says, she's seen a marked change in the way youngsters in the audience respond to her role.

"When I first started the tour [in the fall of 1995], I'd get some boos and hisses. Now, they all seem to know Cruella so well [that] kids are waving to me."

LaRiviere, who describes her performance style as more athletic than the romantic, balletic style often associated with female figure skaters, is joined by pair skaters Viatcheslav Kouznetsov and Julia Mysakina as Dalmatian parents Pongo and Perdita. Rounding out the scene are a raft of chorus skaters as the puppies performing ice show chestnuts like the large-cast kick line and pinwheel. For a finale: an audience count-off of the puppies. All 99 of 'em.

You read it right. With only a slight chuckle up his sleeve, World on Ice creative director Jerry Bilik claims viewers will really see 101 skating Dalmatians yipping it up on the Pond's frozen surface. That's pretty amazing, considering there are fewer than 45 skaters in the entire cast.

"Call it Disney magic," joked Bilik in a conversation from St. Petersburg, Fla., where he was on a field project.

Special effects is more like it, but that makes little difference to audiences, says Bilik, who has helped create World on Ice shows and Ringling Bros. circuses with producer Feld since 1979 and has composed and arranged music for television and film.

He says World on Ice audiences are generally eager to park their disbelief at the arena door, drawn by favorite Disney characters and stories, the technical know-how and resources of producer Feld and an international cast of award-winning skaters (including Australian Cameron Medhurst and Frenchman Axel Mederic).

But, Bilik says, none of it would work without the tunes.

"The music in these films is really, really good," Bilik said. In ice shows, "you can't do close-ups, so we have to portray the emotional content through the skaters' movements. And the skating is music-driven.

"If the music is good, the choreographer is inspired and the skater is inspired," he continued. "As long as we have that, there are no limits."

* What: "Walt Disney's World on Ice"

* When: Today through January 5. Performances are tonight at 7:30, Friday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at noon, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Shows continue Dec. 30 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 1 at 2 p.m., Jan.2 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 3 at 11:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Jan. 4 at noon, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Jan. 5 at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. (The show also runs Jan. 8-12 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and Jan. 15-19 at the Long Beach Arena.)

* Where: The Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave.

* Whereabouts: From the Santa Ana (5) or Orange (57) freeways, exit at Katella Avenue and drive east. Turn left on Douglass Road.

* Wherewithal: $11.50 to $17.50; limited rink-side seating at $30. Parking is $6.

* Where to call: (714) 704-2500 or (714) 740-2000

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