Friday, June 17, 2011

Dr. Dolittle, Mercury Summer Stock

(Pierre-Jacques Brault as Dr. Dolittle, with non-puppet versions of his on-stage pals)

Although most pet owners already fancy themselves capable of engaging their domestic creatures in conversation, talking to animals has always been troublesome beyond the basic statements: “Sit,” “Fetch,” and “Oh, God, not my cashmere sweater!”

That’s why the Dr. Dolittle story, originally written in a series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting, has the ability to entertain youngsters and all the rest of us still in touch with our childlike selves. And this production by Mercury Summer Stock has plenty of fun in store for the little ones, although it may be a tougher slog for those who have advanced past puberty.

The musical features book, compositions and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, the renowned collaborator with Anthony Newley on The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd and Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. But aside from the famous “Talk to the Animals” there are precious few toe-tappers. Indeed, some of the melodies seem strained and a bit random.

Still, the fun here resides with the animals and the presentation, in the form of hand puppets and a two-person costume (the Pushmi-pullyu), is charmingly simple. This makes the animals less a technological marvel, as in The Lion King, and more accessible for the kids.

As for the slim plot, Dr. D is brought up on charges of murdering a woman by throwing her off a cliff into the sea. He claims it was a seal and he was just following the seal’s clearly stated wish to rejoin her seal hubby in the waters up north. Of course, the judge is less than accepting of this explanation, and soon most of the animals in town, from plow horses to mice, enlist in Dolittle’s efforts to free himself.

Mercury artistic director Pierre-Jacques Brault plays the title role, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. Brault exudes great charm on stage and sings well enough. But since Brault and Brian Marshall (who plays Matthew Mugg) share staging duties, some directorial details go unattended.

Brault never quite builds the good, animal-whispering doc into a full-blown character. Instead of the befuddled goodness this man should embody, we sense in Brault’s Dolittle an unfocused distraction. This is shown at various times when Brault is smiling at moments when his character should be registering another expression entirely.

As Mugg, Marshall shows off his singing chops but seems to be playing himself more than the rough and tumble, hard-drinking Irish palooka that his character name implies. Dolittle’s love-hate relationship with a local lady goes well, thanks to Jennifer Myor’s crisp, well-sung portrayal of Emma Fairfax.

The puppets, provided by PJ’s Puppets, are mostly adorable in their unaffected construction, and a couple are quite funny (an enthusiastic dog, a pig gifted with super olfactory senses). One exception is Polynesia, the 200-year-old parrot who is doc’s animal linguistics coach. This puppet is virtually expressionless and barely opens its mouth, problems that may stem from the puppet or from the puppeteer.

Dan DiCello and Neely Gevaart nibble freely on the scenery in their stint as circus owners who fall head(s) over heels for the Pushmi-pullyu. And Kelvette Beacham shines in the second act as Straight Arrow, the surprisingly erudite inhabitant of a floating island where an on-the-run Dolittle eventually lands. Her song, “Save the Animals,” is a huge highlight and one only wishes Beacham had a much bigger role.

While some musicals do fine with only piano accompaniment, this production feels quite threadbare musically, even with music director Ryan Neal’s best efforts.

In all, this is a doctor visit the kids are sure to enjoy. As for the adults, watching the kids’ faces light up is a treat in itself.

Dr. Dolittle

Through July 2, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at the Brooks Theatre, Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-771-5862

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Next to Normal, PlayhouseSquare

(Alice Ripley as Diana.)

Her voice at first has the smooth gloss of a Broadway star. But it isn’t long before another vocal quality becomes apparent. This voice sounds as if it’s been extruded, pushed through the remorseless calendar-die cross-sections of daily life. A voice both blessed and tortured. And the finished product housing that voice, although polished to look at, is brittle and liable to shatter under stress.

This is Diana as played by the magnificent Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her performance in the original Broadway production of Next to Normal, now at PlayhouseSquare. It is a portrayal that cuts through a bold rock music score to plant an indelible impression of bipolar trauma. With a pounding and exuberant score by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this is a production that dives feet first into a delicate subject area and emerges triumphant, although simultaneously downbeat.

Diana is a suburban mom in every jot and tittle, except for the fact that she has a not-easy-to-diagnose mental disturbance. Showing aspects of manic depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior, Diana is a trial to her loving family: husband Dan and children Natalie and Gabe.

Following a familiar pattern, Diana decides to stop taking her pills, encounters a talk therapist, and then spirals down into more serious issues and more extreme outcomes. And, as we learn the trigger for Diana’s troubles, more layers are added to this intense family drama.

If all that sounds like heavy lifting for the audience, fear not. This muscular production directed by Michael Greif is thoroughly captivating from start to finish.

In addition to Ripley’s tour-de-force performance, she is abetted by actors who sing powerfully and contribute clear and convincing characters. Asa Somers as Dan holds his own as the supportive spouse who is entirely out of his depth. Emma Hunton manages a nice mix of empathy, frustration and scorn as she deals with a mother who is rarely there for her. And Curt Hansen’s Gabe floats through the proceedings, always jabbing Diana with his inescapable presence.

In smaller roles, Preston Sadleir is amusing as Natalie’s improv piano playing boyfriend and Jeremy Kushnier renders both doctors with style.

Indeed, the often-enervated casts of the last two Broadway Series productions (especially West Side Story) should sit in this audience and observe how a touring company should perform: with passion and immediacy.

Adding to the powerful overall effect is the set by Mark Wendland that features an industrial three-tiered structure where the rock musicians and the actors do their thing. Accented by projections of house’s bland siding, and a woman’s face, the many lights on the spare crossbeams gleam and are extinguished like the uncertain synapses in Diana’s brain.

And on top of all that, there are trenchant thoughts that glitter amidst the dark turbulence of Diana’s struggles. Such as, “Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it long enough.” And, “The price of love is loss, but still we pay.”

If the subject matter gives you qualms, overcome them. There’s a reason why Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama plus a Tony for the original score. This is a complete theatrical treat, stimulating and profound, and it is not to be missed.

Next to Normal

Through June 19 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000