Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dr. Doolittle

DR. DOOLITTLE, long on special effects at Mercury Summerstock

What happens to a man, a doctor, in fact, who can’t relate to people? What happens to a person who doesn’t know how to communicate with people—only animals? Of course, he becomes best friends with Polynesia (a parrot), Gub-Gub (a pig), Jip (a dog), Dab-Dab (a duck), Chee-Chee (a monkey), Too-Too (an owl), and the Pushmi-pullyu. Make sense? Well, it’s really not supposed to make sense in the traditional sense, but it does make for a smile-inducing story.

DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, now in production at Mercury SummerStock, tells the tale of a doctor, who lives in the small town of Puddleby, England. He finds himself on trial for murder for supposedly throwing a woman over a cliff. As it turns out, the woman is really a seal, who told Doolittle that she wants to be set free from the circus where she is performing, and meet up with her seal husband in the North Pole. Dolittle obliges by dressing her up as a woman, sneaks her out of the circus, and thrusts her into the sea. Insisting that he can actually talk to the animals, the doctor defends himself in court by telling the tale with the help of his talking parrot (the finest animal linguist in the world), a devoted friend, Matthew Mugg, a young boy, Tommy, a menagerie of animals, and the judge’s niece. (Of course there has to be a love interest thrown into the mix.) Eventually the entire assemblage goes off in search of the Pink Snail, with delightful results.

Doctor John Doolittle is the central character in a series of beloved children's books by Hugh Lofting, whose first efforts were illustrated letters to children during World War I. Eventually they were published as a series of books, all set in Victorian England.

The stories found stage life in a British stage production with music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse (Jekyll & Hyde; Stop the World — I Want to Get Off; The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd and Victor/Victoria). It was also transformed into a film staring Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley. A production of the stage version toured Cleveland several years ago with the good doctor being played by Tommy Tune.

Mercury Summerstock, now in its 13th season, presents three shows a summer. There is a naïve Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney, “let’s put on a play” attitude about their productions.

The company is the brainchild of Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall who met while students at Baldwin-Wallace College. They thought there was a need for a summer theatre that gave an outlet to the talents of both local professionals and amateurs, with an emphasis on the latter. The theatre is like the wandering minstrels, finding performance spaces where they may. Presently, they are in the Brooks Theatre of the Cleveland Playhouse. What’s next? Who knows, but this tenacious group, will find a way, find a place, and present plays to their loyal audiences.

Mercury’s production is delightful on many fronts, wanting on others. Director/choreographer Brault, doesn’t let simple things like a postage-stamp sized stage, a limited budget and moderately experienced performers get in his way. He just goes on presenting mini-extravaganzas. (This season ends with SHOW BOAT.) The present production is no exception. There are grand costumes, more gorgeous puppets than a major theatre would put on stage, big dance numbers and lots of scenery being dropped form the fly space and shoved around the stage.

On many levels DR. DOOLLITLE is a delight. Brault, not only directs and choreographs, but he plays the lead role. And performs it well. He’s been off the stage for many years and, based on this performance, he deserves to be back where he belongs. He sings, dances and smiles with glee.

His life-partner and stage buddy, Brian Marshall, after a slow start, glows in the second act as Matthew Mugg, an Irish imp. Kelvette Beacham delights as Straight Arrow. Her “Save the Animals” is a fine appeal for animal protectionism. Jennifer Myor has a nice singing voice and makes for a convincing Emma, who finally makes Dolittle realize that people may be as acceptable as animals. Lynette Turner is fun as Polynesia, the smart-mouthed parrot.

All is not perfect with the production. There is some weak acting and character development, some of the dancers aren’t up to Brault’s movements, and the vocal blends don’t always work. The single piano sounds of Ryan Neal, though well played, sound thin as the single musical accompaniment. The first act pacing is slow and performers often cut off applause and laughs by making physical and verbal entrances too early.

Though the show may appear to be ideal for children, some little ones will probably get restless, while adults will be more prone to appreciate the staging devices.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: DR. DOOLITTLE gets a pleasing, but not spectacular production, at Mercury Summerstock. The puppets, hummable music and Pierre-Jacques Brault’s staging and performance all are positive aspects of the production.