By Philip Pearce
One of my discoveries in writing these reviews is how well served junior theatergoers are by Monterey Peninsula live theater. MPC’s Huck Finn, Ariel’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and PacRep’s outdoor Peter Pan have all been well worth the watching. The new PacRep SoDA Spring offering of Leslie Bricusse’s Doctor Dolittle Jr. is a worthy addition to that list.
More than sixty young SoDA trainees fill the Golden Bough stage these weekends as townsfolk, circus performers, world travelers and, most significantly, a shifting menagerie of animal friends and patients of the indomitable Doctor Dolittle, who decides to become an English village vet after prescriptions he’s been offering as an ordinary M.D. to human patients keep getting mixed up with his remedies for household pets. Once the doctor makes the shift, his parrot Polynesia obliges by teaching him to “speak animal” till he has mastered the vocab and syntax of 500 wild and domestic breeds.
The show adapts the full-length stage musical, itself an adaptation of the 1967 20th Century Fox movie, with an eye to young audiences’ shorter attention spans. The evening starts off squarely in the Animal Kingdom with some delightful pre-show tricks from Lanier Fairchild and her two talented stage pups, Piper and Hazel. It then moves briskly along, under Gracie Poletti’s resourceful direction, with a cast headed by the lively and funny Brian Balistreri as Dolittle, supported by Harrison Shields in the narrator role of Hugh Lofting, who wrote the original Dolittle books, and Seaneen Sullinger and Alexandra Roden as a couple of the women in the good doctor’s life.
The junior performers—a big roster—more than hold their own against these more seasoned talents. I was specially taken by a mite-sized and knickerbockered village lad named Tommy, vigorously sung and acted by Andrew Mansour, and Lily Bunch, who belts out a dynamic Act 2 solo as Straight Arrow, the determined female chief of a tropical island tribe. (At some performances, those roles are played by, respectively, Teagan Cox and Samantha Scattini.)
Missing from the printed program is the usual rundown of musical numbers and who sings what. I wonder whether that reflects a sense that Bricusse’s score, pleasant but forgettable, is a kind of rehash of stuff you’ve heard in other stage musicals? One uncredited duet between Dr. Dolittle and his aristocratic ladyfriend Emma Fairfax sounded eerily like something from Higgins and Eliza in My Fair Lady. That show, of course, starred the originator of the movie and stage Doctor Dolittles, Rex Harrison. Derivative or not, the songs are staged and sung with style and danced with precision under the direction of choreographer Gloria Elber. As to the plot, it offers scope for a variety of different settings and shifts of role and costume. There’s a boisterous sequence at a circus run by a rambunctious trio named Berta (Lauren Mansour), Vladimir (Maddie Mizgorski) and Mavis (Mackenzie Roth) featuring skilled acrobatic and animal acts; and a gorgeous parade of costumes from every nation you or costumer Ziona Goren could possibly imagine when Dolittle decides to escape a murder rap by sailing off to a fabled tropical island. Patrick McEvoy’s sets, here and in a previous storm at sea, make exciting use of back projections.
No spoiler I, but you’ve probably already guessed that, before the final number, the good doctor is publicly pardoned and triumphantly returned to his beloved Puddleby-on-the-Marsh with roars and whistles of approval from a big audience of small theater patrons.
The show continues weekends through April 13.