Tommy Tune to the rescue! Flexing the script-doctoring superpowers of a true stage pro, and with legs still long and limber enough to leap mere mortals with a single bound, Tune has taken a show that failed disastrously in its first touring attempt and overhauled it, delivering a serviceable if old-fashioned star vehicle that’s close in spirit to the 1967 Rex Harrison film, but with dancing. This “Dr. Dolittle” still creaks and groans and never excites, but that’s definitely an improvement over falling flat on its face.
The first attempted tour of “Dr. Dolittle” closed in October, although the show had been slated through the summer. Tune — whose career as star, choreographer and director includes Tonys for “My One and Only,” “Nine” and “The Will Rogers Follies” — was brought on to guide the show anew as well as headline it. The tour then relaunched last month in Houston.
The show clearly has been reworked from top to bottom. While the prior version was accused of neglecting the kiddies — a no-no for a show whose greatest appeal is to family audiences — this one opens with Tune directly providing a special welcome to the boys and girls in the audience. The show has been condensed to an intermissionless 95 minutes, and Lee Tannen’s new book hews more closely to the familiarities of the film.
A new cast ranges from Tune’s old friend and frequent co-star Dee Hoty as Dr. Dolittle’s love interest, Emma Fairfax, to 12-year-old Aaron Burr, who, according to his bio, “literally tapped his way into Tommy Tune’s heart on ‘Good Morning America’ when Mr. Tune judged him ‘Greatest Dancer in America.'”
The plot is utilitarian, setting up Tune as the adored veterinarian who speaks to animals. When not verbally sparring with Lady Fairfax, Dr. Dolittle tends to a motley collection of non-humans — an overweight pig, near-sighted horse, opera-singing parrot, mop-shaggy dog and Burr’s toe-tapping chimpanzee — depicted in a mixture of dress-up and puppetry. (The original puppetry designer, Michael Curry, is no longer credited.)
When Dr. Dolittle stands trial for tossing a lovelorn seal — dressed as a lady — off a cliff, the veterinarian is acquitted but stripped of his license to practice. That provides the opportunity for him to gather up his animal pals and set off in search of the ancient Great Pink Snail.
In the meantime, Tune, et al., launch into some of Leslie Bricusse’s classic melodies, including “Talk to the Animals,” “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It” and “Something in Your Smile.”
Tune is always a welcome and welcoming presence, smiling broadly, singing with a decidedly easy sweetness and moving with his trademark grace. As someone who has been a solo performer, too, he’s comfortable letting the show center somewhat obsessively on him.
But the show does drag. Plot is exceedingly episodic: The Pushmi-Pullyu thread could be excised with no unraveling of anything else. And in tone, “Dr. Dolittle” switches rapidly and repeatedly from corny kid show — the giraffe is “always sticking his neck out for me,” Dolittle quips — to stale musical romantic comedy. There are times when the show feels like “Barney” for seniors or Mr. Rogers resurrected.
There’s a Dr. Seuss-like quality to Kenneth Foy’s attractive sets, but the playing never generates that kind of whimsy. This is fanciful stuff, and the big snail and the giant moth deliver some appealing spectacle. Overall, though, the production remains earthbound.
It peaks, not surprisingly, with the dancing, and while Patti Colombo’s choreography can’t be called imaginative, such a trait isn’t really called for when the climactic sequence is “Monkey-Monkey Island Dance.”
Compared to its prior incarnation, Tune deserves credit for pulling a rabbit out of a hat. But the end result remains far from magical.