"Dr. Dolittle" aptly demonstrates the challenge facing children's theater: how to engage both the wee ones and the adults who buy the tickets.
The heavily doctored "Dolittle" now playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre is a bright and splashy production staged by and starring the legendary Tommy Tune, but it only half succeeds on those counts.
The story about the British doctor who can talk to the animals but has a hard time relating to people is based on the 1967 musical film starring Rex Harrison, with music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and book by Lee Tannen. Bricusse recycled the material into a stage version in the late 1990s, and it re-emerged last year. Tune took over and trimmed the troubled touring musical down to a brisk 90-minute, intermissionless show.
Good for the kids, bad for the adults.
In the process, some characters and plot elements -- along with any real conflict -- also have been cut. When Dolittle's career gets interrupted by a trumped up murder charge, he flees England with his animal pals in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail, finally flying home in triumph on the back of the giant Luna Moth. Whatever.
What passes for a plot is really just a bunch of stories strung together in the most tenuous fashion, and choppy transitions are probably inevitable.
Though Tune has made an earnest attempt to keep the production swift, glittery and energetic, it's weighed down by groan-inducing puns (to a horse: "You're the only one with any horse sense"), corny jokes and a mishmash of puppets and costumed performers representing the animals. More consistency in the visual style and presentation of these animals would help. (For the best example, see the stage version of "The Lion King," another show with animals. Next to that Disney spectacle, the creatures in "Dolittle" look limp and bland.)
The abbreviated version focuses on Dolittle (Tune) and his love interest, Emma Fairfax (Dee Hoty).
Good for the adults, bad for the kids.
Hoty has a wonderful voice, and is graceful and dignified as Emma Fairfax. But when she wanders the darkened, empty stage singing "I Think I Like You," as sweet as it is, the pace and (lack of) visuals of these kinds of moments may set the kids a-squirming.
Mostly, this "Dolittle" is a vehicle for Tune, who is as charming and playful as ever. The dancer/director/choreographer can certainly strut his stuff, though at 67 -- and looking 20 years younger -- he seemed to get a bit winded after the more vigorous dance numbers.
Patti Colombo's choreography starts off dull and restrained; imagine Tune singing much of the famous "Talk to the Animals" while reclining in a chair. Things don't get tapping until a third of the way in, when Dolittle does a number with a two-headed llama. The action continues with a lively tap ensemble on Monkey Monkey Island, and a tap duet between Tune and the 12-year-old and very talented Aaron Burr as Chee-Chee the monkey.
The clunkiness and inconsistencies of this "Dr. Dolittle" may not keep the adults from yawning. But with the kaleidoscopic colors of Dona Granata and Ann Hould-Ward's costume design, Kenneth Foy's pop-up storybook scenery, those jaunty dance numbers, disco balls, confetti and a couple of giant bugs, the production should at least keep the youngest theatergoers duly enthralled. And if "Dolittle" can bring the next generation into the theater, that's a worthy accomplishment.
PROGRAM: "Dr. Dolittle"
Organization: Broadway/San Diego
Dates: Through Sunday
Show times: Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 6 p.m.
Location: San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., downtown
More information: (619) 570-1100, www.broadwaysd.com
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