‘Dolittle’: More than just talking to animals
By Celia Wren
Friday, Dec. 9, 2011
A reference to the pushmi-pullyu - the double-headed critter from "The Story of Dr. Dolittle" - might summon warm-and-fuzzy images of an antelope variant. In Hugh Lofting's 1920 book, the beast describes himself as related to gazelles and unicorns. In the 1967 movie starring Rex Harrison, it was a llama with two noggins. But in the sophisticated "Dr. Dolittle" musical at Imagination Stage, the pushmi-pullyu has a more somber appearance: He is two soldiers with gas masks and crutches, moving in tandem.
That's because director Janet Stanford's staging of Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts's musical has a double focus. On one level, the production channels Lofting's beloved fable about a medical man who can talk to animals - not just dogs and cats, mind you, but monkeys, sharks and more. A suspenseful adventure in Africa, a narrow escape from pirates on the high seas, a friendship with an egoistic parrot - these and other whimsical episodes entwine in an upbeat fantasy.
At the same time, the 90-minute production sounds graver notes, inspired by the biography of Lofting, who fought in World War I. In an overarching tale, we see Lt. Lofting, a budding author, inventing Dr. Dolittle in a damp battlefield trench. This narrative pays tribute to the power of creativity and to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of devastation. There are references to death, wounds, dread, emotional disconnection and separated families.
All in all, it's a subtle, ambitious and dark-toned bit of storytelling, which sometimes seems aimed as much at adults as children. Imagination Stage recommends "Dr. Dolittle" for age 5 and up, but judging by the intermittently restless response of the 5-year-old I was with, parents of children at the young end of that spectrum should exercise discretion.
Even grown-ups will need to concentrate to keep pace with the show's nuanced artistry, which eschews showy costumes and scene changes in favor of low-key touches: a shift in lighting here, a pair of ears on a military cap there. All the action unfurls on a single bleak-looking set, depicting a sandbag-littered trench whose walls are topped with barbed wire. (Tom Donohue is the scenic designer.) This is where Lt. Lofting (Rob McQuay) is hunkered down, waiting for an impending enemy attack and writing letters to his wife, Flora (Leigh Jameson), and son, Colin (Megan Graves), in England. After conceiving of Dr. Dolittle as a way to amuse Colin, Lofting begins to play-act the character; the other men in his unit help bring the fiction to life, with the aid of military paraphernalia. Fronds of fabric on a helmet turn a soldier into a lion (Ricardo Frederick Evans). Khaki supply bags become talking sharks. A stretcher forms the side of a boat.
Stanford's capable actors lend buoyancy and wistfulness to this art-in-wartime scenario. McQuay ably suggests both the optimistic resourcefulness of Dolittle and the angst of Lofting, who grieves over casualties and worries that he's insufficiently close to his son. When she's not embodying the apprehensive Flora, Jameson dons a silky shawl to flutter around engagingly as the parrot Polynesia. (Debra Kim Sivigny devised the effective costumes and Cory Ryan Frank the evocative lighting.) Graves nails the boyish ambivalence of Colin, and, in a welcome touch of broad comedy, Evan Casey blusters with panache as the pirate Ben Ali.
The cast delivers tuneful renditions of the show's pleasant if generic-sounding ditties (composer Courts co-wrote the lyrics with St. Germain, the show's book writer). And the stage business can be lively and clever: In one scene, Dr. Dolittle's animals play Chinese jump rope. In another, linked cutouts of monkeys evoke the abyss-spanning Bridge of Apes - a feat of simian engineering that, in some ways, recalls the daredevil approach of this high-concept production.