True to its origin, "Doonesbury," which opened at the Biltmore last night, is a comic-strip musical peopled by 11 attractive players, most of them young, and lightly spun out in attractive storybook settings. But while it is likable, it is also exceedingly slight.
The slightness would be no hindrance if Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury figures, sometimes shown in cartoon form behind the actors, were adequately equipped with songs. They're not, however. Though the statements that Trudeau, who also composed the book, makes in his lyrics are substantial enough, the form in which he has couched them betrays the hand of the amateur songwriter. At the same time, Elizabeth Swados' rock score rarely shows a distinct and attractive profile. "It's the Right Time to Be Rich," a jaunty comment on the government's current tax policies, is fun, and "Get Together," a pretty and not at all soupy love duet, is engaging. But, for the most part, the songs fail to live up to the ideas generating them.
It's graduation time at Walden, an off-campus commune dwelling, and the lease is up. Though the gang would like to see the place continue in its present form, a spaced-out former government aide named Duke, played by Gary Beach with manic delight, is placed on probation following a cocaine bust and a ridiculous trial, with the proviso that he establish and operate a drug rehabilitation center. Naturally, he buys Walden, and after bulldozing part of the grounds, decides the property would be put to better use as an expensive condo development.
While all this is going on, the Doonesbury regulars - they include the perpetually stoned Zonker (Albert Macklin), the helmeted B. D. (Keith Szarabajka), the self-contained Mark (Mark Linn-Baker), and Mike Doonesbury himself (a winningly goofy performance by Ralph Bruneau), along with others - discuss their own and the world's problems. In fact, many of the topical references are so up to the minute, including comments on our doings in Grenada and Nicaragua, that the show could seem out of date in a week's time. However, President Reagan, whose voice is imitated now and then in snatches of press conferences (unseen, of course), will be around considerably longer.
Besides trying to keep Walden from becoming a "flophouse for dopeheads and burnouts," Mike Doonesbury tries, in his bumbling way, to pursue the lovely J. J. (Kate Burton) until she catches him. Mike, who schedules his daytime activities on a notepad and who keeps a card file of appropriate expressions, has also drawn up an "A" proposal statement with a backup "B" one.
All this is very nice, and there's one dizzying scene near the end when the irrepressible Duke, on one of his highs, drives a bulldozer right through the back wall into the Walden living room (replacing the shredded section for each performance must add considerably to weekly running expenses, but the effect is worth it).
All the performers, from Reathel Bean, who plays a TV correspondent in addition to doing the White House imitations, to Laura Dean, the pretty and animated Boopsie, girlfriend of B. D., are accomplished, and have been given bright direction by Jacques Levy. There are also a few modestly effective dance routines provided by Margo Sappington.
Peter Larkin's pretty pasteboard scenery, Patricia McGourty's apt costumes, and Beverly Emmons' flattering lighting all contribute to our visual enjoyment. But the songs detract from our pleasure too much of the time.
A descendant, in its way, of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," "Doonesbury" might find greater favor in an Off Broadway house. It's encouraging to see Broadway's smaller theaters being used for small musicals (an efficient combo provides accompaniment from the wings), but this one doesn't quite make the grade.
CONFESSION. I have never cared much for Garry Trudeau's cartoon strip Doonesbury. To me this trendy comic seemed facetious, pretentious, pointless and opportunistic - although not necessarily in that order.
ADMISSION. I enjoyed the musical Doonesbury, which opened at the Biltmore Theater last night, rather more than I expected.
It suffers, as did the cartoon strip, from Trudeau's pompous inconsequentiality. The plot - such as it is - takes Mike Doonesbury, Zonker, Mark, B.D., Boopsie, J.J. and the gang on the eve of their graduation, saying goodbye to their youth and their off-campus home from home, Walden.
Trudeau, not surprisingly, thinks in terms of the comic strip - his vision is divided into four panels, and what development the plot possesses, as opposed to ongoing incidents, is rudimentary.
It is fascinating how often the comics have been used as the basis for musicals - Annie, L'il Abner, Superman, Peanuts and, in London, Andy Capp, have all served a musical's turn. And it has always been difficult to translate their readily recognizable two-dimensional images into flesh, blood and speech.
In trying to focus his innately diffuse strip - diffuseness was intended as part of its determined, laid-back charm - for the purposes of the stage, Trudeau has excised some characters, such as Zeke, the caretaker from Aspen, and gone easy on the politics.
Admittedly we have the voice over of President Reagan (expertly imitated by Reathel Bean) mouthing platitudes about Grenada and the like, showing Trudeau to be as politically smug as ever.
Also once in a while Trudeau shows he is a closet intellectual with a little chic name-dropping; here, for example, "I think Sylvia Plath put it best." Lines like that are good for a self-congratulatory snicker from those in the audience who have heard of Miss Plath.
Yet for Trudeau the story line is fairly simple, although there are some loose ends. Non-devotees, or people who have not had to do research on the strip, might, for example, find the relationship between J.J. and her hippie den-mother of a mother, confusing.
Still the basics are here. Doonesbury with his list, Mark with his radio show, Zonker the professional tanner, and his mad uncle Duke, the hallucinating ex-Ambassador to China, B.D. off to play pro-ball - by and large Trudeau provides a fair cross-section of his work.
Some of that work works better than the rest. It is a patchwork musical, with some patches gleaming and other patches dull. The manic Duke - complete with armory and the most wonderful stage bulldozer - is a riot, whether he is defending himself against drug charges in court, or taking over Walden by force, while besieged by phantom bats. Here Trudeau is terrific.
Zonker himself, deciding reluctantly that "tanning is a young man's sport," also emerges neatly from the muddle. But it is not a particularly involving story.
Where the musical does pick up possibly unexpected points is in Trudeau's very snappy and smart lyrics. He seems a natural lyricist, and his dexterity goes well with Elizabeth Swados' sometimes plaintive and sometimes jaunty music, which is, you might say, characteristically characteristic.
The final result is an irresolute chamber musical about cartoon characters you recognize more as cartoons than people, with deft lyrics, appealing music and few outstandingly clever comic shticks.
For the latter, and for the production's overall style, I imagine the director Jacques Levy is largely responsible. Possibly either he, or choreographer Margo Sappington, should be credited with the evening's best laugh, a visual joke about a Swiss army knife, worth watching for.
The production is helped by Peter Larkin's scenery - which cleverly suggests the show's cartoon origins - and Patricia McGourty's apt costumes, which also give the musical an authentic Doonesbury look.
And, finally, the cast is most agreeable. The stand-out is Gary Beach as the crazy Duke offering a rocket-like discharge of manic folly. Ralph Bruneau and Kate Burton are eccentrically charming as the uncomsummated lovers, Albert Macklin, particularly in an imaginative quintet with four plants, makes a joyful Zonker, and Reathel Bean has dour fun as the TV commentator Roland.
Of the rest, Mark Linn-Baker provides a bouncy Mark, Keith Szarabajka and Laura Dean are effective as B.D. and his Boopsie, Lauren Tom is nicely inscrutable as Honey, Duke's adoring side-kick, and Barbara Andres is all liberated and maternal as Joanie, the former den mother.
People who love Doonesbury might love this show. People who don't love Doonesbury might find it a great deal less than they expected.
The qualities that have made Garry Trudeau's comic strip ''Doonesbury'' a national treasure are all present in the musical-comedy version at the Biltmore Theater. You'll hear the offhand dialogue that snares the self- contradictions of college kids of the 1960's. You'll find some sly political jokes aimed at targets as ideologically diverse as William P. Clark and Jane Fonda. Best of all, you'll notice that the tone of Mr. Trudeau's work is intact: on stage, as in the strip, Mr. Trudeau speaks in a sweet voice that lifts him well above the madding crowd of diurnal satirists.
The more literal specifics of the newsprint ''Doonesbury'' have been preserved as well. Jacques Levy, the director, has engaged young performers who not only look exactly like the members of Mr. Trudeau's Walden Puddle commune but also sound just as we always imagined they would - even when they sing. Peter Larkin and Patricia McGourty, the set and costume designers, have done a clever, light-handed job of duplicating the spirit of Mr. Trudeau's airy funny-pages doodling.
No wonder, then, that ''Doonesbury'' is a pleasant show. The surprise is that it's dull. A few bright interludes notwithstanding, this musical never catches fire. Some of the shortfall can be traced to conventional failings of craft in Mr. Trudeau's book and a weak score by Elizabeth Swados. There is also a philosophical problem. Aren't we all, Mr. Trudeau included, getting a bit tired of watching 60's-style students as they beat a hasty retreat into the big chill of the middle-class mainstream?
Mr. Trudeau seemed to acknowledge as much when he suspended his comic strip early this year. After more than a decade, he and his many imitators (on and off the funny pages) had said all there was to be said about such archetypes as Zonker, the spaced-out tanning-fanatic from California, or Mark, the hipper-than-thou disk jockey. In his book for the musical, Mr. Trudeau wants to be done with these characters altogether: the show's premise places the Walden crowd on the eve of graduation, as they venture into the real world seeking jobs and mates.
Because the commencement exercises don't occur until the final scene, Mr. Trudeau must invent other story twists to fill up the evening. Zonker's uncle Duke - a recreational drug enthusiast originally inspired by the journalist Hunter Thompson - conspires to bulldoze the students' off-off-campus house and replace it with condominiums. Mike Doonesbury awkwardly tries to court the feisty J. J., and J. J. tries to come to terms with her long-lost mother, Joanie Caucus. Yet the plotting seems perfunctory, as if the author is only killing time while waiting to bid everyone adieu. Many of the book scenes are enervated rehashes or continuations of old strips. The show's flimsy structure only accentuates its warmed-over feel. Mr. Trudeau is torn between writing a standard musical-comedy narrative (complete with mawkish resolutions) and a series of sketches, with the result that neither form is realized. (For some reason the punchlines that precede the blackouts are the flattest in the script.) Only the straight political gags have bite. At various arbitrary times - but not enough times - a cartoon White House suddenly descends and we laugh heartily at the topical, piped-in lines that Mr. Trudeau has given to our incumbent President.
Oddly enough, Mr. Trudeau's song lyrics, his first ever, are far better than his book; perhaps the tight discipline of comic-strip writing has provided him with the miniaturist's discipline required. In the funniest (if most irrelevant) song, a preppie chanteuse named Muffy declares, ''I love Nancy Reagan/ I love Ronnie, too/ What a pity their money is so new.'' It's too bad that Miss Swados accompanies such words with merrily intentioned but mostly flavorless music, wanly played by an on-stage, synthesizer-laden four-man band. ''Doonesbury'' cries out for a score by Randy Newman - or, failing that, one with the zip of such Broadway progenitors as ''Bye Bye Birdie,'' ''Grease'' or ''Hair.''
Margo Sappington's choreography is as minimalist as the music. But Mr. Levy's efficient staging and lively cast keep the show moving, however vague its destination. With the exception of Gary Beach's vastly oversold Duke and the nondescript contributions of Lauren Tom (Duke's Chinese sidekick Honey) and Barbara Andres (Joanie), the performers could not be better. They include Ralph Bruneau and Kate Burton as the haltingly lovesick Mike and J. J., Keith Szarabajka as the football-crazed B. D., Albert Macklin as Zonker, and Reathel Bean as the most fatuous ABC-TV newsman ever to appear on ''30/30.'' That fine actor Mark Linn-Baker does as well as possible by Mark, whose big song is especially lackluster.
In a class by herself is Laura Dean, as the blond cheerleader Boopsie. ''I Can Have It All'' is the title of her solo turn, and this performer does have it all: she is a charismatic singer, dancer and comedienne who is good-naturedly sexy without ever becoming a stereotype. Watching her, we remember how sweetness and sharp humor came together to ignite ''Doonesbury,'' the comic strip. ''Doonesbury,'' the musical, too often seems pale by contrast: the Walden gang has finally grown up, and, as Mr. Trudeau might pejoratively put it, mellowed out.