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Dr. No

Tommy Tune can't save this unmusical pachyderm

Tommy Tune's world-premiere musical redo of Dr. Dolittleplays without intermission. Unfortunately, that means audiences will have to sit through all of it. A great many respected and talented Broadway professionals labored long and hard -- but ultimately in vain -- to fix this unfixable train wreck. But what's jaw-droppingly shocking is that this plodding, unimaginative show is touted as an improvement over last year's attempt at a revival. As the good doctor might exclaim, holy cow!

This production is based on the lumbering 1967 movie musical, an adaptation of Hugh Lofting's beloved series of children's stories; the film starred the inimitable Rex Harrison as the people-hating but animal-loving -- and animal-talking -- British veterinarian. The original material ought to be a natural for the stage. Lofting's kid-friendly, whimsical tales feature dozens of cuddly animals and invertebrates who are Dolittle's pals during his magical adventures: Chee Chee the monkey, Jean Pierre the giant sea snail and Pushmi Pullyu the two-headed llama, among others.

Unfortunately, this musical is torpedoed by one of the worst scores in history. Lauded and respected for his lyrics (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd), composer Leslie Bricusse is hard-pressed to write a decent showtune. Except for Dolittle's signature "Talk to the Animals," there's not a hummable song anywhere. Unmemorable, the short, tuneless melodies waft in the air, meander aimlessly, then disappear in maddeningly uninteresting ways. Tune's Dr. Dolittle sings the show's best song, the lilting ballad "When I Look in Your Eyes," not to the leading lady, but to Sophie, the lovesick seal he rescues from a circus and sets free.

Cruise control: The talented Tommy Tune.
Courtesy of TUTS
Cruise control: The talented Tommy Tune.

Details

Through January 29. $27-$97.
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887.

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This version is the third attempt (and final one, we pray to St. PETA) to turn this pig's ear into a silk purse. The 1998 London production was a spectacular flight of Victorian fancy, with 92 animatronic creatures designed by Jim Henson of Muppet fame, and the added pleasure of Julie Andrews's prerecorded voice as Polynesia, the parrot. Before a U.S. tour, the heavy look of the London show was jettisoned and a whole new creative team engaged. The producers should have scrapped the score instead. The show played nine weeks on the road to unflattering reviews and half-empty houses before it closed last October. Not wanting to lose their considerable investment, producers brought in the legendary, multiple Tony Award-winning Tommy Tune -- as script doctor, star and director -- to revamp the show and breathe fresh life into it. Seeing the hapless results, somebody had better resuscitate Mr. Tune.

The phenomenally talented Tune is a real Broadway baby. During his decades in front of and behind the footlights, the lithe, lanky Tune has delighted audiences by tapping up a storm, crooning ballads and belting out showtunes, all the while flashing that megawatt klieg-light smile -- and remaining humble and gracious, to boot. With boyish charm (incredible to believe, he's 67!), Tune is immediately likable.

But here, as the irascible Dolittle who eschews human contact to "curse in fluent kangaroo," he's more Mr. Rogers than quirky Victorian vet. Maybe it's all the heavy lifting he's had to do to get this unmusical pachyderm back on its wobbly feet, but the strain is evident. Tune's broad, slender shoulders are no match for the tonnage he's forced to carry. He's on cruise control -- charming as always, to be sure, but uncomfortable delivering Bricusse's wheezy old jokes or pretending to be exasperated at aristocratic Emma Fairfax (Dee Hoty, a Broadway baby herself, who does her professional best in an utterly thankless, underwritten part). He's too much an old pro to sleepwalk through the show, but his heart's not in it.

A family-friendly musical that advertises itself as "everybody's show," Dolittleis watered-down, tepid entertainment that pleases no one. Played at the same numbing pace, the scenes lack contrast or rhythm. For someone who's as nimble a director as Tune, this is unpardonable, as is the unfocused story. Scenes don't flow into one another; instead they collide, as if chunks have been axed out and nothing's been added to soften the transitions.

Although the sets were inspired by Lofting's childlike illustrations for his tales, Kenneth Foy's flat, cutout designs look cheesy, as does the flatfooted choreography by Patti Colombo. Ann Hould-Ward's 1860s-inspired, Necco Wafer-colored townspeople costumes are eye-catching, as are Dona Granata's clever body suits for the monkeys. But Dolittle's animal sidekicks are either actors stuffed inside second-rate costumes (Toggle, the horse) or actors in black unitards who maneuver their puppet alter egos and act along with them, like in The Lion King, but without the art.

Everything about this musical reminds you of some other show; that's its problem. It has no originality of its own, no unique spark or sparkle. It's a retread. Talk to the animals? Ha, in a pig's eye.

 
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