Dr Dolittle

  • Date:
    Thursday, July 16, 1998

    'Dr Dolittle" concerns a country doctor called Dr. John Dolittle who has learned how to talk to animals and thus opens an animal surgery and becomes a vegetarian. The Doctor has an ambition and this is to find a giant pink sea snail. In order to finance his voyage for looking for the creature he needs to raise some money. When a friend sends him a two-headed beast "Pushmipullyu", the doctor joins a circus to raise the cash. However, while on an errand of mercy helping a seal to escape to the sea he is arrested for allegedly throwing an old woman off a cliff. He is cleared of this charge but is sentenced to an asylum for talking to animals. His friends help him to escape and they then go in search of the giant pink sea snail.

    The story is very thin and weak, but this is not important as the attraction of the show is the animals created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the special effects team behind Animatronics, the art of bringing inanimate objects to life through computer technology, cable control and hand puppetry. It took 35 people to create the animals and what a splendid job they have done. The animals are cute and charming, and I particularly liked the pig when he was in the bath on the sea trip.

    The music and songs are not the best I have heard but most are catchy and adequate. Phillip Schofield is a delightful 'Dr Dolittle' and both acts and sings very professionally. Phillip was last on the London stage a couple of years ago in 'Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The delectable voice of Julie Andrews was taped to provided the voice of Polynesia, the 200 year-old parrot. This was a great idea as she has one of those special voices that sounds so clean and pure, and yet authoritative. There are admirable performances from Sarah Jane Hassell as Emma Fairfax, Bryan Smyth as Matthew Mugg, and Peter Cellier as the nasty General Bellowes.

    The popular press all liked the show and believes it is perfect for the family. CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says "It is a warm and winning family show, and having expected to like Dolittle very little, I actually enjoyed it quite a lottle." MICHAEL COVENEY of THE DAILY MAIL says "This may look like a low-rent Lion King, but it has its own wacky, very English charm." DAVID BENEDICT of THE INDEPENDENT says, "If you have got kids - grab them and go." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN says, "Don't go expecting Chicago or Pal Joey. But, on its own terms, Doctor Dolittle is a wholly delightful family musical: ecologically sound, visually ravishing and genuinely charming." MAX BELL of THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Animal magic makes the Doctor a winner." ROBERT GORE-LANGTON of THE DAILY EXPRESS was not overly exited about the show saying; " There's lashings of special effects plus an impressive airborne finale. It doesn't really deserve it, but I've no doubt this show will become this summer's unmissable family outing."

    Director Steven Pimlott has done a great job, and so too has Mark Thompson who designed a marvellous set. Dr Dolittle is not a great musical in terms of its music and choreography, but it is a great theatrical spectacle that will have both kids, and mums & dads mesmerised. This is a family show not to be missed.

    (Darren Dalglish)

    I can be short about this one: I have never seen anything as bad, dull, uninteresting and stupid as this show. I thought “Well, it’s for children”, but even that was not the case: all the children I saw were yawning, running around the auditorium and yelling.

    Phillip Schofield tries to do something to make it interesting, and when he sings a love duet with a seal, well ... I was almost leaving the theatre. Emma was played by Louisa Shaw that night and she’s far too old for the role (she looks as if she could be Matthew’s mother), though I remember her being good in the Martin Guerre days. Matthew is played by Bryan Smith, who has a nice voice, but that’s about it really. I do feel sorry for the wonderful Peter Gallagher, having to play Straight Arrow instead of doing Caiaphas again on the road in the Jesus Christ tour.

    All I can say is this: “Do miss Doctor Dolittle”, “Guaranteed to annoy children of any age”...

    (Sven Verlinden)

    In the back of the programme for Dr Dolittle, there is a review of a book about Broadway theatre. The author of the review starts by saying "To come out of a musical comedy humming the tunes was once a measure of its success. Nowadays you are just as likely to hum the light bulbs". He could well have been talking about Dr Dolittle. In this production it is the special effects that star.

    The animals in question are created, brilliantly, by Jim Henson's Creature Workshop. Composer and author Leslie Bricusse said that the show would only appear on stage if children could believe that the animals were real and not puppets. Consequently, nothing has been done by half, and new technology has been used to create lifelike animals on stage. Movement is controlled either by people inside the animals or remote control electronics, and to be honest, they are very good indeed. Special mention must go to Polynesia the talking parrot, the Pushmi-Pullyu, Jip the Old English sheep-dog (my favourite!), the moth and the snail (see later), and Gub-Gub the pig.

    There are real people as well! The lovable, friendly doctor is played by Phillip Schofield. Sad to say but this show doesn't really demonstrate his full abilities. He has a good range but most of the songs are low to middle and he is often drowned out. However, he gets two wonderful sung solos (many of his lyrics are spoken), "When I look into your eyes" - the most romantic song I've ever heard sung to a seal! ("When I look into your eyes/I see a pain so real/Isn't it a shame/you're a seal"!!), and "Where are the words", a gorgeous duet with Matthew Mugg about the woman they are both falling in love with. Phillip is now seen as a musical theatre star, and when he first came on he was applauded even before he'd said anything! He was more comfortable singing than acting his spoken lines - he seemed constantly aware that there was an audience there, whereas in his songs he relaxed and enjoyed himself.

    The supporting cast is strong, notably Bryan Smyth as DD's friend, Sarah Jane Hassell as Emma Fairfax, the love interest, and Peter Gallagher as Straight Arrow. I was wondering how he can have such a deep voice and still sound camp! One member of the cast is never seen - Julie Andrews put the voice to Polynesia. Leslie Bricusse jokingly said recently that if Polynesia can speak two thousand languages, she wouldn't sound like a parrot, she'd sound like Julie Andrews, and then they tought "Well, why not?"

    The music is infectious, although much of it impresses at first and is forgotten the following morning. The songs I can't get out of my head are "Never Seen Anything Like It", "Talk To The Animals", "When I look Into Your Eyes", "Where Are The Words" and "Fabulous Places". The lyrics are sometimes brilliantly poetic and sometimes wonderfully silly. Lines like "They'd ask can you speak rhinocerous?/I'd say of course-erous!" stand out.

    Back to the moth and the snail. The moth is laden with lights changing colour and flies around the auditorium with Phillip sitting on it at the end of the show. A few minutes before, DD's search for the Giant Pink Sea Snail ended when an enormous snail with a very comical face appeared at the back of the stage. This snail is so big that it fitted through the largest door at the theatre (the largest in London) with just 10 inches to spare! Jim Henson would have been proud to see these masterpieces of animatronics.

    Phillip Schofield has committed himself to the project for a minimum of two years. I think he'll be at the theatre for quite a while longer than that.

    Three things to warn you about. Firstly, don't forget to save two 20p coins for the opera glasses, otherwise you won't realise how good the smaller animals are, such as the duck and the foxes. Secondly, some of the action takes place at the front of the stage and if you're sitting further back you'll have to lean forward to see over people's heads for fairly long periods of time. Thirdly, it is a children's show, and there was a lot of mumbling throughout the show, and "Ooh look Mummy!"

    This show, while it is not the best in London, is a pure example of why I love musical theatre. It is complete escapism, relaxing not taxing, truly magical, and overall, it's fun! Long may it run.

    (Christopher George)

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