Imagination Stage’s new musical production of Dr. Dolittle combines two stories, the traditional Dr. Dolittle tale and the story of its origins in letters written home by Hugh Lofting while away at war. While the approach may initially puzzle the youngest children, the two stories cleverly blend to support common themes about the importance of communication and the value of cooperation over fighting. This Dr. Dolittle is both entertaining and deeply meaningful, a cut above many children’s offerings.
The first clue that this Dr. Dolittle won’t resemble the 1967 Rex Harrison film or the 1998 Eddie Murphy film, is the stark, impressive, and detailed WWI trench setting artfully designed by Tom Donohue. Veteran D.C. actor Rob McQuay plays Hugh Lofting, who struggles with what to write his son Colin (Megan Graves) that would not either glamorize the fighting or horrify the child.
Lofting draws upon the inspiration of his fellow soldiers to create the story of Dr. John Dolittle (also played by McQuay), a medical doctor who is more comfortable with animals than humans. After his parrot Polynesia (Leigh Jameson) teaches him animal languages, his reputation spreads so far that he receives a request to travel to Africa to deal with an epidemic afflicting the monkeys. Lofting writes his son into the story and onto the crew of the ship that sets sail for Africa, even though Dr. Dolittle is even more awkward with children than with other people.
Treating the animals will pose many difficulties for Dr. Dolittle and friends, both from the dangers posed by a local king (Ricardo Frederick Evans) and a dangerous pirate (Evan Casey) as well as the challenges of persuading other animals to cooperate in helping the monkeys. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Lofting faces his own challenges as his soldiers are ordered to engage in a dangerous battle.
Not surprisingly, most of show’s fun comes from the interactions between the doctor and the animals. To say that some of the actors engage in cast doubling would be a severe understatement. While Leigh Jameson’s portrayal of the know-it-all parrot Polynesia is a standout, Ricardo Frederick Evans makes a convincing lion, and Christopher Mueller and Phillip Reid prove to be versatile and gifted at both verbal and physical comedy. All accomplished with minimal costume accessories, making the performances all the more impressive.
Yet the most affecting acting comes from the human characters. McQuay makes a suitably troubled father, Jameson is equally good as his worried wife Flora, and Megan Graves is a convincingly rambunctious boy who longs for fatherly love. Evan Casey also provides several sharply etched characterizations.
Dr. Dolittle is the fourth musical from the team of Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts, and it shows in the smooth blending of book and music. The songs can be both fun and functional, such as the ones introducing Dr. Dolittle, describing how he learns the “Animal A-B-C’s”, and explaining the odd two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu creature. The main message song of the work, which explains that “we are all creatures of the same land” and “we are all fingers of the same hand”, is beautiful and memorable.
Director Janet Stanford is very resourceful in her staging of the action in the downstage area and effective at taking advantage of comic possibilities. The struggle of an emotionally constipated Dr. Dolittle to express affection for Colin is also developed in a skillful arc.
Dr. Dolittle is a little darker and more serious than the typical Imagination Stage production. Yet judging by the rapt attention of even the youngest children, their ability to understand and appreciate the messages of the show may surprise the adults. Dr. Dolittle also presents a teachable moment about the many area families that will be missing a mother or father during this holiday season.
Dr. Dolittle runs thru Jan 8, 2011 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue Bethesda , MD
Inspired by Hugh Lofting’s “The Story of Doctor Dolittle”
Book and lyrics by Mark St. Germain
Music and lyrics by Randy Courts
Directed by Janet Stanford
Produced by Imagination Stage
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes (no intermission)