Dr. Dolittle and his animals leave a mess on the Palace stage.

Dr. Dolittle Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through April 30, 216-241-6000
As Jerry Seinfeld once said, when you name your child "Jeeves," you've seriously limited his future job prospects. The same could be true of a Texas family named Tune, who dubbed their baby boy Thomas. For even as Tommy Tune grew to his full stature of six foot six, his moniker had to steer him inevitably toward tap-dancing and singing, and not, say, slashing to the hoop in the NBA.

If a name can foretell one's destiny, Tommy Tune has certainly made the most of his fate, having won nine Tony Awards. And at age 67, he still cuts a youthful, rapier-sharp presence onstage in the glorified one-man show Dr. Dolittle, now at the Palace Theatre. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this patchy, pockmarked, and flaccid exercise is only made borderline bearable by the star aura of Tune himself.

Based on the charming children's stories by Hugh Lofting, this rendition of the vet who could speak in the tongues of various beasties is deficient in almost all aspects, from uninspired set design to criminally lame animal presentations. Since we are now officially in the theatrical era of The Lion King, which infused startlingly effective life into everything from meerkats to elephants, it should no longer be acceptable to have a swaybacked two-person horse lumber out.

But that is one of the doctor's pals, along with perhaps the homeliest pig marionette ever devised, a stiff cardboard giraffe that tilts down from the wings, and a moplike sheepdog, operated like a clumsily engineered floor waxer by two black-clad handlers. And then there's the Giant Pink Sea Snail, a large monstrosity with the strange, mustachioed face of a bored gay maître d'.

Not only are the animals off-putting; the book by Lee Tannen is so larded with stale puns (when a parrot receives treatment, she quips, "Put it on my bill!") that it feels as if the whole thing were written by the editors of Highlights magazine. The music penned by Leslie Bricusse is no better. With the exception of the well-known "Talk to the Animals," every song is a mush of meandering lyrics and notes that isn't even memorable from one bar to the next. Although Tune, who also staged this lumpen effort, and his co-star Dee Hoty do yeoman work vocally, these compositions have a bottomless vapidity that no human can alter or deflect.

As for the story, it jumps from a half-hearted romance between the doctor and a neighbor lady to a trial of Dolittle for throwing a woman (it was a seal) into the channel. What doesn't happen is any creative imagining of what animals might be saying to people -- and to each other -- if we could only understand them.

At the end, as Tune is lifted off the stage on the back of a lunar moth (which looks like a six-legged two-by-four with wings), we wish him a soft landing in another show -- one that is equal to his admirable and age-defying talents.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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