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Tarzan

Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins, Book by David Henry Hwang

Directed by John Tartaglia

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny

June 25, 2014

Michael James Reed, Kate   Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page Photo : The Muny

Michael James Reed, Kate Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page
Photo : The Muny

I have to admit I was not expecting much from this production of Disney’s Tarzan at the Muny. I had heard mixed comments about the stage show, and although I like the Disney movie on which it is based, I didn’t know how well the film would translate to the stage. Well, after seeing it this week, I’ve decided that the Muny really has its act together this year.  While the show itself does have its flaws, the Muny’s production is surprisingly entertaining, with an impressive cast and pleasing but not too flashy production values, all working together to present an engaging rendition of the classic story.

Tarzan, based on the Disney animated film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s well-known tale, tells the story of the son of shipwrecked travelers (Max Clayton, Emma Gassett) who is orphaned when his parents are killed by a leopard.  The infant is then adopted by the gorilla Kala (Katie Thompson), whose own young son has recently been killed by the same leopard.  Despite the doubtful discouragement from her mate, Kerchak (Quentin Earl Darrington), Kala raises the child, whom she names Tarzan, to become a determined young boy (Spencer Jones) who wishes to prove himself as valuable to the family group. He befriends a mischievous young gorilla named Terk (Nathaniel Mahone), and strives to be accepted by the increasingly distrustful Kerchak. As Tarzan (Nicholas Rodriguez) and Terk (Gregory Haney) grow into adulthood, Tarzan continually wonders about his place in the world, as a human raised by gorillas.  The arrival of English explorers Jane (Kate Rockwell) and her father Professor Porter (Ken Page) further exacerbates Tarzan’s dilemma when Tarzan and Jane become increasingly attracted to one another and Tarzan begins to learn more of what it means to be human.  Meanwhile, while the Porters are eager to study the gorillas and learn how they live, their greedy guide Clayton (Michael James Reed) only views the gorillas and Tarzan himself as a means for his own profit.

On paper, this musical has a lot going for it, with a score by well-known rock/pop musician Phil Collins and a book by celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang. Structurally, though, it has its problems, with the story not really starting to move forward until Tarzan is an adult, despite the fine performance of Jones as the earnest young Tarzan.  The songs are hit-or-miss, as well, with memorable songs from the film such as “Two Worlds, One Family” and “You’ll Be In My Heart” getting good renditions here, although other songs suffer from not being particularly melodic or memorable.  There are also some slight changes to the ending that I don’t think work as well, and the role of Clayton is minimized so much that it doesn’t give the talented Reed very much to do.  The show also seems to have a lot more energy and momentum in the second act.

All that said, however, it’s the casting and overall production that make this show work, ultimately.  Rodriquez is excellent as Tarzan, with a lot of personality and stage presence.  He and Rockwell display wonderful chemistry, and their scenes together are a real highlight of the show. I especially enjoyed their Act 2 songs “Like No Man I’ve Seen” and “Strangers Like Me”.  Thompson is also extremely effective as the loving and fiercely protective Kala, and Darrington brings a great deal of strength to the role of the stubborn, proud Kerchak.  Thompson and Rodriquez have a great moment late in Act 2 with the reprise of “You’ll Be In My Heart”, and Thompson leads the energetic “Son of Man” production number, in which Tarzan grows from a child to an adult, with authority. Haney displays good comic timing and a great deal of energy as Terk, as well, as he leads a fun dance number with the gorillas at the beginning of Act 2 called “Trashin’ the Camp”. Muny favorite Page is charming as Professor Porter, and there’s a very strong ensemble, as well, contributing to the overall energy and drama of the show.

The staging and choreography work well with Timothy R. Mackabee’s striking unit set, which is basically a “jungle gym” type structure that represents the trees in which the various apes and animals climb, and Tarzan swings and slides up and down on ladders and poles rather than swinging on vines.  There are a few flying moments in which Tarzan swings over the audience, such as Rodriguez’s initial entrance as the adult Tarzan in the “Son of Man” number.  For the most part, though, the acrobatics are confined to the small-ish set, which is clever and colorful even though it sometimes seems a bit too small for the giant Muny stage.  The costumes by Leon Dobkowski are clever, especially for the gorillas, who are more stylized than literal in appearance.  Jane’s first costume looks a little cartoonish, although the other outfits are well-suited to the characters.  The overall jungle atmosphere is well-realized here, adding to the mood of the show and the energy of the performances.

While the show itself has its structural problems, the Muny has done their best with it, and the result is a very entertaining show, if not a brilliant one.  This is another impressive production from the Muny, and it’ still early in the season. It bodes well for the rest of the shows, as I’ve been somewhat doubtful about some of the productions chosen this year. With its themes of self-discovery, communication and familial love and acceptance, this is an excellent show for all ages as well. This goes to show, in keeping with the show’s message, that preconceived expectations can often be wrong, and that every show is worth a chance. Tarzan at the Muny is definitely a production worth checking out.

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas  Rodriguez Photo: The Muny

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas Rodriguez
Photo: The Muny

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