If I had to baby-sit a group of 8-year-olds, I would not hesitate to take them to Mercury Summer Stock’s fun, funny and vivacious production of “Dr. Dolittle,” which is on-stage in Cleveland through July 2.
It is clear from the production, which kicks off Mercury’s 2011 season, that directors Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall have decided to be true to the stories’ roots; they are, first and foremost, children’s tales. And so, the characters are presented as a wide-eyed, overly dramatic, enthusiastic bunch you might see on a television show for young children. The characters double as people and puppets, with the human actors holding the puppets.
This production presents a great opportunity for children to be introduced to live theater.
Literally, in a sense, the characters spring forth from the story’s pages; the set consists of boards made to look like text-filled pages from the stories. In some cases, the boards are “doors” through which characters enter.
Mercury’s “Dr. Dolittle” isn’t perfect. The actors with the animal puppets could have been more hidden from the audience, so it would be easier to believe that the animals are talking.
Many are familiar with the tales of Dr. Dolittle, based on the stories of Hugh Lofting. In 19th century England, an eccentric doctor with the title’s name is inspired by his sidekick parrot to treat animals after realizing he cannot communicate well with humans.
Soon, our esteemed doctor learns the “languages” of just about every animal possible and can “communicate” with them.
Brault, Mercury’s artistic director, stars as Dolittle and presents his own take on the doctor; he doesn’t try to mimic Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy, who played the character in two film versions. A wide-eyed Brault, donning a top hat, nerdy black glasses and a long, purple coat, radiates Willy Wonka-like charisma and eccentricity.
Brault’s attempt at a British accent isn’t always convincing, though, and he needs to convey more urgency and act more serious during Dolittle’s trial. The doctor, after all, is on trial for his life, having been accused of murder!
Marshall co-stars as Dolittle’s buddy Matthew Mugg. Marshall gives Mugg a free spirit, although he could use work on an Irish accent. He could also concentrate more on using his character’s drunkenness to comedic effect. But Marshall puts his clear, rich and strong singing voice to good use in such numbers as “My Friend the Doctor.”
Jennifer Myor conveys, at appropriate times, assertiveness and charm as Emma Fairfax, who at first despises Dolittle but gets to understand him. During confrontational scenes, Myor and Brault are perfectly positioned, almost nose to nose.
Young boy Tommy Stubbins, Mugg’s chum, is a sweet, curious and optimistic youngster, qualities that Nathan Hoty nicely captures. Hoty, to his credit, always stays in character.
Part of the production’s humor stems from Christopher Aldrich’s funny portrayal of General Bellowes, the judge who oversees Dolittle’s trial. Rather than presenting him as stern and no-nonsense, Aldrich’s Bellowes is a stiff with a superior air. All it takes is a cock of an eyebrow or a haughty glance for Aldrich to draw some laughs.
There’s plenty of laughter and things to admire in “Dr. Dolittle,” thanks in part to its wacky premise, lovable, odd characters and the upbeat award winning song “Talk to the Animals.”
Fuddy duddys might have a problem with Mercury’s playful production, but children will delight and adults will become children again.
For ticket information call (216) 771-5862