It's often said book writers get an unfair share of the blame for unsuccessful musicals and not enough credit for the successful ones, so here's let's start by saying ... the book indeed deserves a large share of the blame. After this tour was poorly received last year, in a production that utilized a book by Leslie Bricusse, author of the 1967 film's screenplay, music and lyrics, the producers brought in Lee Tannen (author of the Holland Cruise Lines show Tommy Tune's Paparazzi to write a new book that pared the story down to 90 minutes, leaving out much of the plot, some of the characters, and little development of the characters who remain. Without that, Bricusse's decent "adult" ballads, ("At the Crossroads," "After Today") have insufficient dramatic setup, though as some of the stronger numbers in the piece it's good they remain. It's turned into a highly presentational children's theater that hasn't a prayer of crossing over into an adult audience and probably won't impress any kids that have been exposed to the likes of The Lion King.
The Lion King is indeed a tough act to follow for anyone seeking to set a musical in the animal kingdom, and this suggests who are the real culprits in this case: the producers, who apparently didn't have enough confidence in their property to fund it at a level that would allow the piece to take advantage of its potential for magic. The good doctor boasts of the many animal languages he speaks, but here we see him converse with maybe six. There's nothing too magical about the animal creations, here credited to Dona Granata, a prominent costume designer in the opera world who may simply not have been right for this job. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the decision to use the Japanese tradition of Bunraku, in which visible operators manipulate and voice the puppets, rather than something more high tech. Given that decision, though, the lack of imagination in either puppet design or writing of clever animal characters becomes even more disappointing. The animals can converse, after all ... give them something to say! Say what you will about Disney, but they do manage to come up with clever animal characters that comment on human characteristics in an Aesopian way.
That said, much credit is due to the scenic design by Kenneth Foy and the human costumes by Ann Hould-Ward and Ms. Granata. Foy uses a number of painted backdrops that suggest Lofting's original illustrations of his books and brings them into colorful, three-dimensional life, while the period costumes are bright and numerous. As far as design goes, it's better than Disney's Tarzan on Broadway. The Leslie Bricusse score is a winner as well, featuring not only the Academy Award winning "Talk to the Animals" but also the charming ballad "When I Look in Your Eyes," sung by Dolittle to a seal. Further, the score is given a top-notch performance by the cast and one of the best-sounding orchestras I've heard in a show on Broadway or on tour.
Then, of course, there's Tommy Tune, still a charming and charismatic performer, fine singer and terrific hoofer for as little opportunity as he's given himself to dance here. His characterization of Dolittle is appropriately British – kindly, and reserved in an Anthony Hopkins "Remains of the Day" sort of way. Even so, it's very much on the one note Tannen's book gives him, and he never progresses much beyond that – none of the eccentricities you might expect from a man who can talk to the animals! Tune is quite nicely supported by the always-solid Dee Hoty, who plays his love interest Emma Fairfax.
As director, Tune does the best he can with what he has to work with. The show moves along nicely enough, but you still wish he could have come up with some funnier business for the animals (the horse Toggle speaks with his hooves, imagine that). He doesn't do a lot of dancing, but the number "Monkey-Monkey Island" near the end of the show, performed with young Aaron Burr as the monkey Chee Chee, is almost worth the wait and his tap dance with the dog Jip brings a smile to the face in the choreography, not by Tune but by Patti Columbo.
It seems that the producers got cold feet and figured the safest route with this property was to market it to children who would not be as demanding as their parents. That they didn't have more faith in the potential of the story and score, or put in place the creative team who could make it soar, may be a lesson in lost opportunity.
Dr. Dolittle plays the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through Sunday, July 30th. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $25-$72 and are available at Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, by phone (312-902-1400) or through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Photo: Joan Marcus