He talks to the animals but lacks the gift of gab

Bill Vargus is Dr. Dolittle and Tamara Anderson is Straight Arrow in the Media Theatre's holiday production of "Dr. Dolittle."
Bill Vargus is Dr. Dolittle and Tamara Anderson is Straight Arrow in the Media Theatre's holiday production of "Dr. Dolittle."
Posted: November 27, 2012

When my father was growing up, Santa stuffed coal in bad children's stockings. Today, St. Nick could take naughty kids to see the Media Theatre's unenergetic production of Dr. Dolittle.

When 20th Century Fox remade its 1967 Dr. Dolittle in 1998, it cast a comedian, Eddie Murphy, to play the title role of the vet who can talk to animals. Bill Vargus, the former Fox29 sportscaster, can't even connect with the beachball-sized volleys of humor lobbed by Leslie Bricusse's 1967 book. His lack of timing and insistent aloofness mean the show's more adult themes of animal equality come across too stridently to be enjoyable to anyone who doesn't consider the musical a clarion call for animal liberation.

Jesse Cline's direction tempers this imbalance with a tender highlighting of the love triangle of Dolittle, the fiery Emma (Lauren Cupples), and Dolittle's assistant Matt (Sean Thompson). Thompson and Cupples' voices provide a superb blend - his honey-toned Broadway vocalizing and her equally lovely operatic approach. Both add needed charm, as do the adorable child actors.

The best numbers belong to Vargus, who possesses a smooth, soothing, old-school R&B style. Close your eyes and it sounds gorgeous. Open them and you'll see him singing the signature ballad "When I Look in Your Eyes" to a seal.

I get it - the show's meant for kids. But the first rule of children's theater, especially in a holiday-show slot, is that it must entrance as it entertains. Dann Dunn's choreography excites in a few rousing numbers; Gina Andreoli's costumes are cute but add neither humor nor wonder.

This production marks the lone occasion when I've disliked the usually brilliant Troy Martin-O'Shia's lighting; here, he too often blankets the bare stage with overheads or has scenes cut away harshly. Shifting panels move against a backdrop of animal photos and a 20-foot- tall animated snail that winks as it lurches across the screen. Philadelphia abounds with multimedia talent, but not here.


Dr. Dolittle

Through Jan. 27 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State St., Media. Tickets: $37-$54. 610-891-0100 or www.mediatheatre.org.

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