Sunday, April 23, 2006

Dr. Dolittle (Playhouse Square Center)

‘Dr. Dolittle’ may please some of the kids, but......

During Tommy Tune’s curtain call speech following his ‘DR. DOLITTLE’ performance at Playhouse Square’s Palace Theatre, he thanked John Kenley. Kenley, the 100 year-old theatrical legend, who was the guiding light behind the Kenley Players, gave Tune his first professional theatrical job. Tune, originally a chorus boy, went on to star not only in Kenley productions, but on Broadway.

It was appropriate that Tune mentioned Kenley, for ‘DR. DOLITTLE’ is much like a typical Kenley Players show. It is long on a star performer and short on quality.

Based on Leslie Bricusse's Oscar-winning film, the stage musical has had a checkered existence. For some inexplicable reason the show, which opened in 1998 to a generally positive reaction, was totally redone for the US audience.

For the tour and projected Broadway run, Jim Henson's Creature Shop was brought in to conceive the animals. Henson’s company is world-renowned for bringing inanimate objects to life through computer technology, cable control and hand puppetry. Creature Shop produced a live-action Pushmi-Pully dancing two-headed llama, a parrot, a dog, a monkey, a giant pink sea snail and a 14-foot flying lunar moth.

The US tour opened in Pittsburgh in August of 2005 to tepid reviews and closed in Hershey, PA on October 2 due to “slow ticket sales.” Since it was listed on so many national theatre packages, such as Cleveland’s Broadway Series, an effort was made to resurrect the vehicle. Enter....Tommy Tune, the National Medal of Arts and nine time Tony winning actor, singer, dancer and director. The show was rewritten and Tune assumed not only the leading role but became the director.

Tune recast the show, selecting Clevelander Dee Hoty to play his love interest. Hoty is a three-time Tony winner. Twelve-year-old Aaron Burr was picked to play Chee-Chee the monkey. Burr recently won the Greatest Dancer competition on ABC’s "Good Morning America.”

Based on "The Doctor Dolittle Stories" by Hugh Lofting, the tale concerns a Pouddelby, England people-doctor turned veterinarian. He finds himself on trial, accused of murder. Insisting that he can actually talk to animals, the doctor defends himself against charges that he threw an unknown woman off a cliff to her death, contending that he was following the wishes of a seal who wanted to return to her fiance in the North Pole. With only his faithful parrot, Polynesia (the finest animal linguist in the world), a neighbor who dislikes him, and a menagerie of animals to support his story, Dolittle is somehow believed. He decides to leave the area and go on a search for the wondrous giant pink sea snail and return the monkey (Che-Che) to his native environs. (Okay, ‘LES MISERABLES’ or ‘CHORUS LINE’ this isn’t.)

It would be nice to say the whole thing works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The production often looks like it was developed to go from one Tune dance number to another, with little glue holding the whole thing together. To make things worse, the production qualities are poor. The sets are mostly cheap looking drops. The special effects go awry. On opening night the flying moth didn’t work as intended. On the second night the curtain call was delayed because of technical problems. And, even the choreography is wanting. The dance routines gets boring after a while due to repeated movements.

Tune, at age 66, still dances up a storm and his singing voice is more than adequate. Hoty is excellent. The puppets are fun and the score is pleasant (“Talk To The Animals,” “I”ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” and “Something in Your Smile.”). “Monkey Monkey Island Dance” was the standout production number. Unfortunately, the whole thing just doesn’t hold together.

My grandson, 9 year-old Noah Berko, who attended the production with me, serving as the voice for the children who might attend, thought a lot of things in the show were “fun.” He especially liked the monkey (Aaron Burr), the flying moth on which Tune floated above the stage, and the monkey dance. He liked the goings-on a lot more than his grandpa. But, you must understand that he was sipping a strawberry slushy in a cocktail glass and being fussed over by the nice ladies sitting next to him who kept telling him how cute he was, so he may have been distracted.

Capsule judgment: ‘DR. DOLITTLE’ is just not ready for prime time. I’m not sure that it ever will be without a drastic redo of the redo.