What the Dr. Ordered

A children's classic gets a much-needed Tune-up

Theater icon and native Texan Tommy Tune probably wouldn't call himself a hero, but to Jimmy Nederlander he most definitely is. Nederlander, the head honcho of Broadway's last family dynasty, found himself in a bind when he realized his newest production, Dr. Dolittle, just wasn't hacking it. (That's being diplomatic: Reports are that it straight-up stank.)

Nederlander needed someone who could step in and save the day (and more important, his investment). So he called Tune. The six-foot-six actor-dancer-choreographer-director, who's won more Tony Awards than Tara Reid's won drinking games, agreed to check out the show. "Let me be kind," says Tune, sounding as polite as possible. "It was…askew. It just didn't come across. I was hoping I could just step into the role and learn my lines, maybe put in some dances. I called Jimmy and said, 'Before I can be Dr. Dolittle, I have to be Dr. Tune and perform surgery on this.' " In a hometown-hero twist, the show will open today at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, in the same city where Tune, who grew up here before moving to New York, performed his first dance recital when he was five years old.

Dr. Dolittle is a perfect patient for Dr. Tune, who is the show's star and director. The musical is based on the classic children's book by Hugh Lofting (not the goofy Eddie Murphy movies). Dr. Dolittle is a world-renowned veterinarian who speaks nearly every animal language. He sets off from his home in Puddleby-by-the-Marsh, England, in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail. On his journey, he and his animal pals meet far-out creatures like the Giant Lunar Moth and the Pushme-Pullyu — a dancing, two-headed llama that would set Michael Jackson's heart aflutter.

It's a whimsical story with kooky animal action for the kids and romance (human to human) for the adults. And in Tune's hands, it has the potential to be gold. His pitch-perfect vibrato is well suited for the show's signature tune, "Talk to the Animals." His towering persona, decked in period costume and signature top hat, is a hip nod to Willy Wonka — well, maybe Wonka meets Mister Rogers. "I have laundered out the cynicism that creeps into shows like this," says Tune. "So it's sweet and charming. But I also know short-attention-span theater. I read the books to my godchild and he got restless. So I've picked up the pace and added a lot of dance."

Tune says he's still mastering the director-star role. "Right now, the performance is suffering, but that'll change," he says. The gifted artist has worked in big song-and-dance numbers for himself and his co-stars, especially 12-year-old Aaron Burr, who won a Good Morning America dance contest (Tune was one of the judges). Burr should shine as the monkey Chee Chee, especially when he and the good doctor visit Monkey Monkey Island, a plot twist Tune added. "I can't wait to see how this show turns out," says Tune. "It's an odd animal." 7:30 p.m. Show runs through January 29. 800 Bagby. For tickets and showtimes, call 713-558-8887 or visit www.tuts.com. $27 to $72.
Jan. 17-29

 
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