Dr. Dolittle

Tom Hewitt, Jenna Coker and Nancy Anderson
CLO Executive Producer Van Kaplan had a vision - he wanted to see the Leslie Bricusse musical Dr. Dolittle as a live realization of the stories Hugh Lofting wrote about the animal-loving doctor, originally published in 1920. Not only would the characters come to life as Lofting wrote them, but the entire atmosphere, from costumes to set pieces to makeup, would resemble the style of the Lofting illustrations which accompanied the stories. That turn-of-the-century drawing style is, as Kaplan told Kenneth Jones of Playbill, "a little off, a little twisted, a little different." People and animals are depicted, not unnaturally, but sometimes a bit exaggerated. It's definitely not the style of the Jim Henson puppets used in the original London version of the musical, and it seemed it would be a difficult style to pull off on stage. However, Kaplan can be very proud of the results of his vision, as the staging of this Dr. Dolittle is a sumptuous and unique visual feast (thanks in great part to the design team of Kenneth Foy, Michael Curry and Ann Hould-Ward). As seen at the very first performance, it is not yet a streamlined, efficiently paced production, but the inspiration of Lofting's charming drawings is richly developed and impressively exhibited on stage.

The original Leslie Bricusse (book, music and lyrics) stage musical debuted in London in 1998, with a cast of 35 (plus 92 animals, which took some 60,000 man hours to create) and the voice of Julie Andrews (as the parrot sage, Polynesia). It was based on the hit film starring Rex Harrison, and ran for one year. In a plot created from the Lofting stories, Dr. Dolittle is a veterinian who has the unique ability to communicate with his patients. While helping a seal reconnect with her long lost husband, the doctor is mistakenly arrested for a high crime. He attempts to explain himself to the court, and his story introduces many interesting animal acquaintances, but he unfortunately winds up in jail. Ultimately, Dolittle wins his freedom through the help of his animal friends.

Bricusse has worked with Kaplan and director Glenn Casale on this new version, which retains the basic story of the film and first staging, as well as the songs (including the popular "Talk to the Animals"). There are a few slow stretches, but, with judicious nip-and-tucking, this good production will continue to improve on its nearly one-year tour of 32 U.S. cities.

Already in place is an excellent cast. Tom Hewitt has made the unique transition from Frank 'N' Furter (Rocky Horror Show on Broadway) to Officer Lockstock (Urinetown tour) to Dracula (Dracula: The Musical on Broadway) to Dolittle. He is excellent as the dedicated but slightly distracted veterinarian. Dolittle's compassion is fully presented by Hewitt, with thoughtful acting and good vocals. It is quite an accomplishment to deliver a love song to a seal ("When I Look in Your Eyes") with the appropriate amount of sentiment - endearing yet not perverted - yet Hewitt succeeds. The thorn in Dolittle's side (at the beginning, anyway) is Emma Fairfax, who is vibrantly brought to life by Nancy Anderson (Kiss Me, Kate in London, on PBS). Anderson gives us a quirky yet endearing character, and her singing is sublime. Her effective facial expressions and animated dancing bring this character to new heights.

Also turning in a delectable performance is Tony Yazbeck (Never Gonna Dance, Oklahoma!) as Dolittle's friend and assistant, Matthew Mugg. Though the romantic triangle Mugg creates does not seem terribly essential to the story, the fact that it gives us a chance to hear Yazbeck soar on "Beautiful Things" almost makes it worthwhile. Ed Dixon (The Iceman Cometh, The Scarlet Pimpernel) and Ellen Harvey (The Music Man, Thou Shalt Not) as Albert and Gertie Blossom, the sweetened Thenardier-ish carnival owners, are cartoonish without being over the top and have a lot of infectious fun with "I've Never Seen Anything Like It." Eric Michael Gillett (Sweet Smell of Success, Kiss Me Kate) performs two quite different characters: General Bellowes, Emma's uncle who may sent Dolittle to prison, and Straight Arrow, Dolittle's naturalist comrade. Shadoe Alan Brandt (Seussical, King and I tours), a talented young actor/singer, is virtually wasted in the meager role of Tommy Stubbins. The whole cast comes together well, giving a very rousing rendition of "Fabulous Places."

Of course, the real stars of the show are the animals. Foy, Curry and Hould-Ward provide a menagerie of magnificent creatures, some of which are in a similar style to those Curry worked on for The Lion King. As in that precedent-setting musical, many of the animal characters are an amalgam of puppet and human components. The costumed puppeteers express the character's emotions and are recognized by other characters, instead of being hidden, in hopes that the audience will ignore them. The puppets are very creative, both in look and in movement. It is the combination of puppet and human that makes these characters come alive, in rich and delightful portrayals. Some of the charming critters are Jenna Coker as Gub-Gub the pig, Matt Allen as Toggle the horse, Michael McGurk as Jip the dog, and the combination of Naomi Kakuk and Brittany Marcin as the Pushmi-Pullyu. Susan J. Jacks as Polynesia dispenses wisdom and reason, and Kathleen Nanni's Sophie the Seal is dazzlingly graceful.

Another masterful element is the unique costume and makeup design for some of the human characters, particularly the townspeople. Lofting's exaggerated style is created amazingly through makeup and costuming. This is almost grotesque at first glance, but the characters make a successful leap from the page to the stage. Other standouts in design are the carnival characters, the "panel" of judges (one actor costumed as a judge, in the center of two puppet judges he has on each arm), the courtroom set, and Sea Star Island with the beautiful Giant Luna Moth excursion.

Rob Ashford's choreography is well utilized and an inventive relief from the same old dance moves seen in some of the other offerings of this season. It's probably Casale's direction that is hurt most by the CLO phenomenon that puts the very first performance out for review. It's really a lot to expect for everything to run smoothly on the first night, especially with such a busy show. The few line fumblings, ubiquitous opening night sound glitches and noisy set changes should be fixed by now. Hopefully, the pace can be evened out and some of the scenes that drag can be tightened.

It remains to be seen whether this is a Broadway-bound show, but a good foundation has been laid for an enjoyable touring family show.

Dr. Dolittle runs through August 14 at The Benedum Center. For ticket and performance information, call 412-456-6666 or visit www.pittsburghclo.org. For more informtion on Dr. Dolittle, visit www.doctordolittlethemusical.com.

Photos: Joan Marcus

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-- Ann Miner

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