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'Dr. Dolittle' in tune at performing arts center

Theater Review

March 24, 2006|By TOM TITUS

It's not hard to pick Tommy Tune out of a crowd, especially in the musical "Dr. Dolittle," since he's about 7 feet tall from his tapping toes to the peak of his top hat.

What is difficult is to accurately guess his age from viewing his performance. It's a matter of record that the tall Texan recently turned 67, but you'd never know it watching those long, limber legs prance around a stage. At an age when most performers are slowing down, Tune is speeding up, accelerating his career and the pace of this show.

At the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the third stop on a nationwide tour for this appealing, youth-oriented musical, Tune's enthusiasm is infectious. As the eccentric veterinarian with an uncanny ability to converse with his patients (in every language but snail), he brings a wide-eyed winsomeness that drives the production, an intermissionless exercise lasting just shy of 100 minutes.

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The musical "Dr. Dolittle" is the brainchild of Leslie Bricusse (of "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off" fame), culled from the century-old writings of Hugh Lofting that inspired two movies, one starring Rex Harrison and the other Eddie Murphy. The current version has been penned by Lee Tannen and extensively revised by Tune ? who also directed ? to mesh with the multifaceted performer's style.

What emerges from this collaboration is a featherweight exercise in theater but a somewhat magical treat for younger audiences. A few of the animals involved are operated by black-clad handlers reminiscent of "The Lion King," although one of them ? Sandi DeGeorge moving and voicing Polynesia the parrot ? contributes a stirring soprano to the proceedings.

Most shows offer both a heavy and a love interest. "Dr. Dolittle" combines both functions in the form of Emma Fairfax, a titled Englishwoman initially repulsed by the eccentric vet but ultimately attracted to him. Dee Hoty enacts this role with feisty charm, turning the corner of her character beautifully with the solo "I Think I Like You."

There are few other principals involved. Those who impress are Joel Blum in double duty as a police magistrate and circus impresario, and 12-year-old Aaron Burr (who could grow up to be vice president) as a tap-dancing monkey. Burr was judged, by Tune himself, America's best tap dancer on a TV show, then recruited for "Dr. Dolittle."

The familiar Dolittle menagerie is aboard ? Toggle the bespectacled horse, Gub-Gub the piggish porker, Jip the shaggy dog and the celebrated Pushmi/Pullyu, a two-headed llama that becomes the prize attraction.

Conductor Michael Biagi wields a swift baton, keeping the pace fluent, while the show's ensemble glides well through Patti Colombo's choreographic movements. Dona Granata has designed both the colorful costumes of Tune and Hoty and the even more striking animal characters, while color also prevails beautifully in Kenneth Foy's scenery.

You'll believe you can "Talk to the Animals" after an office visit to "Dr. Dolittle." And you also may be searching for Tommy Tune's fountain of youth.

IF YOU GO

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