Doctor, Doctor!, the musical revue currently running at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre Company, begins from a very simple premise: Few things are in more dire need of a good laughing-at than illness, doctors and the health care system in general.
And laugh at them it does, often in the only dark-humored way that’s really possible. There’s a frisky irreverence to most of Doctor, Doctor! that recognizes how necessary it can be to find humor in our mortality and vulnerability. With occasionally off-color flair, ETC’s production delivers the goods—except when it forgets that the patient is there for a funny-bone tickling, not a tear-duct massage.
No real plot of any kind connects the songs by Peter Ekstrom and David DeBoy. Four performers—Bruce Bredeson, Steven Fehr, Victoria Mallory and Camille Van Wagoner, all in fine voice—play multiple roles in a series of songs and sketches loosely based around the frailties of the human body and our efforts to fix them. Over a brisk two hours (including intermission), the quartet offers up operatic odes to Valium, torch songs of patient infatuation with a doctor and gripes against HMOs.
When Doctor, Doctor! keeps the tone light, it generally hits all the right notes. Mallory laments that plastic surgery has made her mother look too young in the doo-woppy “Please, Doctor Fletcher.” The audience gets to sing along with a diatribe against hemorrhoids and contributes to collection baskets during the gospel rave-up “Jesus is My Doctor.” And in the superb first-act finale “Nine Long Months Ago,” the company sings in utero as eager-to-be-born quadruplets, wonderfully choreographed by Brent Schneider while surrounded by a pink elastic sheath.
The show also isn’t afraid to get a little macabre. Van Wagoner belts out the twangy, very funny country ballad “Willie” to her late husband, who has been turned into a dozen different organ donations. Mallory gets to play both a mental patient contemplating suicide to jaunty dance moves and a homicidal nurse eager to dispatch difficult patients. While the gags may be uneven, the darker tone recognizes the grimmer side of the subject matter while still giving it an empowering tweaking. Death ain’t funny—except that sometimes it has to be.
Then again, sometimes it isn’t—and that’s usually when Doctor, Doctor! needs a shot of whimsy, stat. Fehr sings the sad song of a depressed dad in “I’m a Well Known, Respected Practitioner,” Bredeson eulogizes a recently deceased father in “I Loved My Father More Than He Knew,” and Mallory gives voice to a terminally ill woman in “Do I Still Have You,” every number as sincere as it is misplaced. The latter two feel especially ill-conceived, placed in succession immediately after “Nurse’s Care” turns euthanasia into a punch line. It’s not wise to make the audience feel guilty about having enjoyed the twisted humor by then asking us to sympathize with those same poor souls. If you need a reminder that grief and dying are rough, you need more help than Doctor, Doctor! can provide.
While the original incarnation of the production dates back only to 1979, it sometimes feels like an artifact from an even earlier time. There’s a vaudevillian sensibility to blackout comedy sketches that underline obvious gags about PMS and narcolepsy—and to portrayals of sex therapists vis ze thick Cherman accents. Even some of the reference points feel dated—who uses the expression “VD” any more or lives in an iron lung?
Yet that slightly retro innocence may actually allow Doctor, Doctor! to work better. While sticking a pin in our medical anxieties, it refuses to get cynical, opening and closing with simple awestruck admiration at the workings of the human body. As long as Doctor, Doctor! keeps us chuckling at the many ways that body can break down, it accomplishes its own kind of healing.