Doctor Dolittle Is Unwell; Touring Musical Will Shutter in PA After Nine Weeks

News   Doctor Dolittle Is Unwell; Touring Musical Will Shutter in PA After Nine Weeks After less than two months on the road, the national tour of the musical Doctor Dolittle is being shut down due to lack of ticket sales, the producers announced Sept. 28.

The final performance of the family-friendly musical, which has book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, will be Oct. 2 in Hershey, PA.

Dozens of performers, including Tom Hewitt in the title role, and tech people and musicians will be out of work with the shuttering. Dates for the tour were announced into 2006.

The American production was the brainchild of Van Kaplan and was produced by Pittsburgh CLO (where he is executive producer) and Nederlander Presentations, Inc. The show was different than the United Kingdom concept and staging seen in London and on tour in recent years.

"While we are extremely proud of Doctor Dolittle on stage, it simply is not translating to ticket sales and finding its audience," said producer Nick Scandalios of Nederlander Presentations, Inc.

At least one presenter, Broadway in Chicago, is optimistic about a future for the show. According to spokespeople for the Cadillac Palace in Chicago, the production, which had been scheduled for Oct. 4-16, has been "postponed until August 2006." The producers of the tour have not announced a future plan, and "have no additional comments" at this time, according to a Sept. 28 statement.

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The stage show is based on the 1967 Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, which has Rex Harrison as the distracted, misanthropic physician who got along better with animals than people. He changed disciplines and became a brilliant veterinarian, with the help of his parrot, Polynesia, who taught him all the animal languages. The song "(If We Could) Talk to the Animals" won an Oscar for Best Song.

Tony Award nominee Tom Hewitt (The Rocky Horror Show) is the good doctor in the new production, directed by Glenn Casale (who directed Cathy Rigby's Peter Pan). The production launched at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh Aug. 2-14.

Leslie Bricusse met with the company of the new show in recent rehearsals toward the bow in Pittsburgh. A multi-city tour was to follow, and Bricusse told Playbill.com he hoped it would eventually get a run in New York City.

The company members play both humans and animals, donning special costumes and using special puppetry techniques unique to this staging (Michael Curry is the effects design, Ann Hould-Ward the costume designer). When it played London, a different version of the show used flashier "animatronics" by the Jim Henson workshop designed to wow audiences in a cavernous theatre; this version is more human size — and thus more immediate and much warmer, Bricusse said.

Nancy Anderson (Broadway's Wonderful Town, A Class Act) is Emma Fairfax/Fox; Tony Yazbeck (Broadway's Oklahoma! and Gypsy ) is Matthew Mugg (the Irishman played in the movie by Anthony Newley); Ed Dixon (Broadway's Les Misérables, The Iceman Cometh, Off-Broadway's recent Under the Bridge) is circus impresario Albert Blossom; Eric Michael Gillett is General Bellows/Straight Arrow; Shadoe Alan Brandt is Tommy Stubbins/Duck and Susan J. Jacks is Polynesia.

The Equity company includes Mark Aldrich (County Clerk), Matt Allen (Toggle the horse), Jason Babinsky (Chee-Chee the chimpanzee), Jenna Coker (Gub-Gub the pig), Ellen Harvey (Gertie Blossom), William B. Hubert, II (Policeman), Michael D. Jablonski (Ensemble), Ryan Jackson (Ensemble), Naomi Kakuk (Pushmi-Pullyu), Ian Knauer (Policeman), Brittany Marcin (Pushmi-Pullyu), Michael McGurk (Jip the dog), Christy Morton (Ensemble), Kathleen Nanni (Sophie the seal), Mahri Relin (Mildred the cow), Drew Taylor (Bailiff), and Elisa Van Duyne (Giant Lunar Moth). Alexa Glover and Thom Graham are the swings.

Here's how the producers characterize the show: "In Doctor Dolittle, the small town of Puddleby, England finds itself in the middle of the most sensational trial of the century as Doctor Dolittle stands accused of murder. Insisting that he can actually talk to the animals, the doctor defends himself against charges that he threw an unknown woman off a cliff to her death. With only his faithful parrot, Polynesia (the finest animal linguist in the world), a devoted friend, Matthew Mugg, an innocent boy, Tommy, and a menagerie of animals to support his story, the good doctor tries to convince the court, led by his arch-enemy General Bellowes, that he did not murder anyone. As Doctor Dolittle tells his story to the court, we encounter a myriad of other colorful characters including Emma Fairfax, General Bellowes' outspoken niece, Albert Blossom, the proprietor of a local circus and a host of hilarious animals who have turned to Dolittle for some form of assistance."

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The CLO-produced national tour will include the stage magic of designer Michael Curry, known for puppetry and visual effects on Disney and Cirque du Soleil projects. Scott Ellis (Twelve Angry Men) is "artistic consultant" for the project. Tony Award-winner Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie) choreographs. Ashford is a former Pittsburgh CLO dancer who graduated from Point Park College in Pittsburgh.

Casale previously told Playbill.com that the Doctor Dolittle team wanted to avoid an overly simple children's-story narrative that might offer little tension. Unlike any other version of the tale, the show starts off with something high-stakes: Dolittle on trial for his very life, charged with murder.

Kenneth Foy, whose work has been seen at opera houses, on Broadway and in resident and touring houses, is scenic designer.

Broadway's Ken Billington (The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Dance of the Vampires) designed the lighting.

Orchestrations are by Kim Scharnberg (Little Women, Jekyll & Hyde). Michael Duff is music director.

Sam Lutfiyya is music coordinator, David Chase is dance arranger, Paul Rubin is flying choreographer, David H. Lawrence is hair designer.

Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward (Broadway's Into the Woods, Beauty and the Beast, Falsettos, Dance of the Vampires) has created costumes for the famous veterinarian, his romantic interest Emma, and a supporting cast of puppeteer-actors who will be dressed in Victorian garb while manipulating creatures.

In the tradition of The Lion King, actors will often be in plain view as they perform their animal characters, including a monkey, a giant lunar moth, the famous two-headed llama known as the Pushmi-Pullu, the parrot Polynesia, a lumbering horse, a tap-dancing dog and more.

Pittsburgh CLO executive producer Van Kaplan's mission includes finding and developing new works for his audience. It was his idea to explore and reinvent the show.

As a soldier in World War I, producer Kaplan said, author Hugh Lofting was witness to mustard gas attacks and saw the wounded men taken to hospitals, while the poisoned horses were shot.

"This had a big effect on him," Kaplan said. "That's where he got the idea and inspiration to write 'Dr. Dolittle.' Animals are as important as humans: They have souls, they are beings, they're creatures just like we are, so why would they be treated any differently?"

The presence of actors behind the creatures underlines the idea that all creatures great and small have a "life force."

"These animals have souls, so we will create souls with each one," Kaplan said. "The operators will sometimes be seen and sometimes not, through lighting effects."

The production does not mirror the production created for U.K. audiences in 1998, though the basic story remains. To improve on it, "what we decided to do is go back to the original source material, which nobody knows," Kaplan said.

He explained, "The great thing about Doctor Dolittle is that it's a brand. Eddie Murphy made it a household name again. So we have a brand that really needs no explanation — you know what it is. But how do we tell the story? How do we make it interesting? How do we get people engaged? We went back to the Hugh Lofting books."

For the film, Bricusse "pulled from a number of the books," Kaplan said. "Our story is not in any one book. He did [this plot] for the 1967 movie, and the same basic story remains. The way it's told is completely different."

Although Lofting had no formal training as an artist, he was a skilled illustrator whose whimsical (slightly art nouveau) sketches adorned his books. Hould-Ward and Foy's designs echo some of Lofting's original visual ideas.

Nothing about the tour's design sketches indicate that the show is a generic, primary-colors musical comedy — the look is slightly dark, slightly askew.

The show curtain offers some examples of Lofting's quirky artwork, and a Victorian proscenium arch is part of the framework of Foy's design.

"It's late 1800s, there's a certain style to it," Kaplan said. "It's a little off, a little twisted, a little different. You've never seen anything quite like it."

As in the film (which had a screenplay by Bricusse, who wrote the songs, too), Dr. Dolittle is accused of an apparent murder. The show's locations include a jail cell, a court room, the town of Puddleby, a circus, a ship and an exotic island, where a giant sea snail makes an appearance.

Kaplan said the show's major engine, like all great musicals, involves romance, despite the fact that Dolittle seems more at home talking to animals than to people.

"Part of the storytelling is that Dolittle can't really relate to people," Kaplan said. "He doesn't know how to communicate with people — only animals. It takes Emma, the female character in the story, to teach him how to relate."

The book, music and lyrics for the stage version are by the respected Leslie Bricusse, whose hit songs include "The Candy Man," "Goldfinger" and "What Kind of Fool Am I?," among many more.

Kaplan pursued the American rights to the property and got them — and the active participation of writer-composer Bricusse, who wrote a new opening song and worked with Casale to reinvent and improve the storytelling.

The show is totally new since its London production and retains none of that version's creative team (save for showbiz legend Bricusse). The cast will tour the musical 45-48 weeks in its first year, playing major markets.

Pittsburgh CLO's producing partners are Columbia Artists and The Nederlander Organization.

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Bricusse is no stranger to stage musicals, having collaborated on Jekyll & Hyde; Stop the World — I Want to Get Off; The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd and Victor/Victoria, but generations of people know his hit songs from being exposed (as kids) to such family-friendly movies as "Doctor Dolittle" (in which Rex Harrison sang "Talk to the Animals"), "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (which included "The Candy Man"), "Scrooge" (known for the haunting "You" and joyous "Thank You Very Much") and the Peter O'Toole-Petula Clark remake of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (which offered the romantic ballad "You and I"). With John Barry, he wrote "Goldfinger," and penned a collection of other hits with other writers.

"Talk to the Animals" won the Academy Award for Best Song and the Rex Harrison vehicle won a Special Effects Oscar, and was nominated in a number of categories — including Best Picture in a decade when lavish musicals were routinely produced for the screen.

The score of the stage show includes such songs as "When I Look in Your Eyes," "At the Crossroads" and "I've Never Seen Anything Like It."

For more information, visit www.doctordolittlethemusical.com.

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Van Kaplan and Pittsburgh CLO have produced several touring productions including the American premiere of Barry Manilow's Copacabana and the world premiere of Casper The Musical starring Chita Rivera, plus the 1998 Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Jodi Benson and the Osmonds.

Following the Pittsburgh bow, Doctor Dolittle will play St. Paul's Ordway Theatre (Aug. 16-28), Green Bay's Weidner Center (Sept. 6-11), Memphis' Orpheum Theatre (Sept. 13-18) and Philadelphia's Academy of Music (Sept. 20-25), among many other venues.

For the record, the score the 2005-06 stage show includes the following musical numbers:

"Puddleby-on-the-Marsh," "Talk to the Animals," "My Friend the Doctor," "The Vegetarian," "At the Crossroads," "I've Never Seen Anything Like It," "Beautiful Things," "When I Look In Your Eyes," "Like Animals," "You're Impossible," "After Today," "Fabulous Places," "Where are the Words?," "Save the Animals," "Something in Your Smile," "Save the Animals (Reprise)," "The Voice of Protest," "I've Never Seen Anything Like It (Reprise)," "Doctor Dolittle," "My Friend the Doctor (Reprise)."

For more information, call (412) 456-6666 or visit www.pittsburghclo.org.

A scene from <i>Dr. Dolittle</i>.
A scene from Dr. Dolittle. Photo by Joan Marcus
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