DR. WONDERFUL at the Kennedy Center
October 18, 2011
By Celia Wren, Published: October 17
The science geeks have all the fun in “The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog!,” a jauntily educational children’s musical at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. Featuring a book and lyrics by Lauren Gunderson, with a perky pop-show tune score by Brian Lowdermilk, this hour-long world premiere (recommended for ages 6 and up) launches its eponymous schoolgirl heroine on a quest to solve a cosmic mystery. A subsidiary goal for Dr. Wonderful: to keep Newton, her canine sidekick, from hoarding all the household butterscotch.
The sleuthing takes place against the backdrop of a cozy bedroom-and-laboratory decorated with handmade drawings of Einstein and other thinkers and furnished with an enormous telescope. This is the home base of Dr. Wonderful (Jessica Frances Dukes), a youngster who likes to sing the praises of the scientific method, and who would probably rather attend a NASA planning meeting than hang out with Justin Bieber.
After Dr. Wonderful’s hyper-cool mom (Gia Mora) poses a high-stakes puzzler involving the imminent disappearance of a star, Dr. Wonderful and Newton (Jason Lott) set off on an investigatory trip through the solar system. Accompanying them is Ben (Nickolas Vaughan), the nerdy dreamboat who lives down the street. By the time the trio has successfully solved the whodunit and returned to Earth, they have mastered basic facts about visual perspective, atoms and fusion, and have learned the salient characteristics of all the planets.
Director Sean Daniels and his creative team deliver some cheeky humor with their science lessons. The rundown on the solar system, for instance, takes the form of a colorful pageant, complete with signature music for each celestial body. (Move over, Gustav Holst!) When Dr. Wonderful and her team voyage past Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, for instance, composer Lowdermilk delivers sultry Caribbean tones and rhythms, and the spirit of the planet (Mora again) prances onstage in a Carmen Miranda-style fruit-bedecked headpiece. Another mini-scene — about the moon — showcases Mora in a fedora, moonwalking like Michael Jackson to a “Thriller”-esque beat.
Like a particle accelerator in action, the performances are expertly calibrated. Wearing jeans, pink sneakers and a lab coat, Dukes displays fine comic timing, especially when admiration for Ben turns Dr. Wonderful into a tongue-tied klutz. Vaughan’s Ben exudes dorky charm, and Lott is hilarious as a smart-alecky pooch who would prefer to be playing with his Xbox but who settles for saving the world and learning astrophysics.
Sadly, at the opening performance, the musical accompaniment tended to drown out Gunderson’s lyrics. But the kids in the theater didn’t seem too distressed by this acoustical failing. In the moments after the curtain call, one youngster was heard to gush to his parent: “That was awesome!”
The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog!
Book and lyrics by Lauren Gunderson; music by Brian Lowdermilk. Directed by Sean Daniels; music direction, Christopher Youstra; scenic design, Misha Kachman; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Brian J. Lilienthal; sound, Veronika Vorel; properties artisan, Dreama J. Greaves; orchestrations, Charlie Rosen. One hour. Through Oct. 29 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.