Reviewed by Claudia Perry
Look out Broadway, the Doctor will soon be in. That's right, first seen in London in 1998, the Premiere American Tour of Doctor Dolittle will be charming audiences around the country for the next year. Based on Leslie Bricusse's 1967 Oscar winning movie, this delightful family musical has the entire shebang (book, music and lyrics) penned by Mr. Bricusse. And from the original movie score come such wonderful songs as "Talk to the Animals", "When I Look in Your Eyes", "After Today", "Beautiful Things", "Fabulous Places" and "At the Crossroads". Well, the list could be endless because the entire score is melodic and memorable. For the purposes of the musical, some of these songs have been given new verses or been expanded upon to flesh out the story and/or add dance numbers.
For those of you who have never seen this adorable movie starring Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar and Anthony Newley - the story concerns the small town of Puddleby, England where Dr. Dolittle stands accused of throwing an unknown woman off a cliff into the sea. The doctor, who claims that he can converse with the animal world, explains that she was in reality Sophie the Seal, who only wanted to visit her husband at the North Pole. Supported by Polynesia, his faithful parrot, Matthew Mugg, a devoted friend, Tommy Stubbins, an innocent boy and a menagerie of animals, the doctor tries to convince the court of his innocence.
Tom Hewitt's name rests solidly above the title of the show and with good reason. As Doctor Dolittle, Mr. Hewitt is in almost every scene and never seems to leave the stage except to change his costume. His performance as John Dolittle is completely disarming. Aided by a smooth Bari-Tenor voice, Mr. Hewitt can at one moment seem forceful and pigheaded (oh, pardon me!) and at the next, vulnerable and sweet as a lamb (oh, dear, there I go again!) Tony Yazbeck is outstanding as the young Matthew Mugg, with a spectacular voice. Nancy Anderson plays a sweet but prissy Emma Fairfax and delights us with her rendition of "Fabulous Places". Susan J. Jacks is terrific as Polynesia, flying about the stage like a feather. Michael McGurk is irresistible as the tap dancing dog, Jip. Shadoe Alan Brandt as Tommy Stubbins has a big voice for such a small looking fellow and Sophie the Seal (Kathleen Nanni) does a moving balletic lament. In short the entire cast is well cast and highly entertaining.
If you are a fan of the original Dr. Dolittle book series, then you will appreciate the scenery (Kenneth Foy) and costume design (Ann Hould-Ward). A large drop curtain sports pen and ink figures that look like Hugh Lofting's original drawings, and the set pieces are like exploded pictures from a book, while the costumes are strange and fairy-tale fanciful.
A note about the animals used in this production. I personally hate puppets. But these aren't puppets. These are big, stuffed, fluffy, colorful creatures that are extensions of the actors. That's right. You can look at the actor and the animal and they are one and the same. No puppeteers here. And I leave this wonderful phenomenon to their designer - Michael Curry and to the director, Glenn Casale. Credit must also be given to Kenneth Foy (Scenery & Animal Design) and Ann Hould -Ward (Costumes, Animals & Mask Design) for their hand in designing these vivid and fantastic creatures. If I were a kid, my eyes would still be popping out of my head for the Giant Pink Sea Snail and the Great Lunar Moth are simply both not to be missed!
At a talk back after the show it was evident that the Producer, Pittsburgh CLO/Van Kaplan, and Columbia Artists Theatricals backed by the Nederlander Organization has plans for the Doctor down the road and is eager to improve the show as the tour progresses. A most humble suggestion offered only as constructive criticism would be to not have "Beautiful Things" and "When I Look in Your Eyes" back to back. They are both lovely ballads, but since the median age for this audience is going to be on the young side - it's going to be hard to keep their attention - regardless of the dramatic worth of the situations. So perhaps a little song shuffling might be advisable.
But in the meantime, a word to anyone with children who loves the theatre - see this show now while it's on the road - before it gets to Broadway. Because, number one, it's totally delightful, and number two, once it gets to the Great White Way - it will be impossible to get those Saturday matinee tickets!