nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 16, 2006
Tarzan, the new musical spectacle from Disney Theatrical Productions, is in no way the bore that many in the critical community are labeling it. It's woefully uneven, but it's gorgeous in places and smartly inventive (in the same places): there's great art in Tarzan, and I think that the dazzling effects may be enough to turn this show into, if not a Lion King, then at least a Beauty and the Beast. Many of the youngsters in the audience seemed charmed by what they saw (along with quite a few of the oldsters), and in the final analysis, for an entertainment of this ilk, that's what counts.
Let me quickly summarize the plot for you, just in case you are somehow not familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs's famous story or the myriad films based upon it. After an English couple become shipwrecked during a storm off the coast of Africa, they and their infant son find themselves washed ashore in a dense jungle. The parents are killed, and the baby is "adopted" by a gorilla named Kala (she's the mate of Kerchak, the leader of the local tribe of apes). Against Kerchak's better judgment, Kala raises Tarzan as her own son. After he is grown, he encounters other humans for the first time in his life, in the person of a beautiful young Englishwoman named Jane, who has come to Africa on an expedition with her father, Professor Porter. Eventually Tarzan and Jane fall in love, and the two must make a choice: will they part, or will they stay together, even though that means that one of them must give up their home forever?
I'm glad to have gotten that out of the way, because the story—as rendered here in David Henry Hwang's sketchy, jokey, and occasionally smarmy book and (especially) in Phil Collins's dismal score (which is perhaps the most disappointing collection of songs ever assembled for a contemporary musical)—gets very short shrift in this adaptation. It feels flat and foolish; Tarzan's education—Jane teaches him to speak English, read, etc.—is particularly unconvincing, as is the entire convenient device of the villain, the Porters' bloodthirsty guide Clayton.
But who cares?—the book is a frame for some of the most original and glorious stage pyrotechnics that Broadway has yet witnessed. The architects of Tarzan's triumph are four in number. First, there's Bob Crowley, who has created a stunning visual style for the show that starts with his lush, adaptable set—a curtain of dense green foliage out of which characters pop every way imaginable—and culminates in spectacular costumes that include the neatest animal skins for actors since Cats (most of the characters in the show are apes, leopards, or other non-human creatures). Second and third are Pichon Baldinu (aerial design) and Meryl Tankard (choreography), who have created thrilling three-dimensional dances for their simian chorus, evocative leaps for the leopards, and all manner of bungee jumping, spinning, and flying for the title character and his pals. Visible harnesses don't detract from the effects one whit: it's cool to see people flying around on stage and, in a few exciting moments, directly over the heads of the folks in the center orchestra section.
Fourth and probably most is the work of lighting wizard Natasha Katz, which augments Crowley's spare designs to define space and location with a beauty and specificity that's downright miraculous, and gives the show a distinctive, unifying look that makes it unlike any other you've ever seen.
Together the work of these artists—the dancing and flying very well-realized by the show's large and diverse ensemble—transform Tarzan from the leaden book musical it could have been to a flying circus spectacle. It's precisely the right direction for Disney to be taking its shows, in my humble opinion: in the spirit of Disneyland and Epcot and other similar attractions, Tarzan takes its audiences to a place they've never been before, in this case a visceral, exciting fantasy Africa where humans can fly and gigantic exotic creatures can soar out of the floor in breathtaking splendor. It engages audiences the same way that Cats used to: its creators' imaginativeness challenges rather than stunts our own. When all the elements come together felicitously—and they do in at least half a dozen sequences during the show—the result is pure theatre magic: a genuinely frightening shipwreck and storm; a giant butterfly emerging without warning in the center of the auditorium; a dazzling garden of astonishing colorful flora and fauna showing Jane a vision of African exotica that she (and we) will never forget.
So, while I wish that a book and score might have been devised for Tarzan to match its extraordinary visual and movement elements, I confess that I enjoyed myself quite a lot at this show.
Let me note, before wrapping up, that Josh Strickland is a remarkably agile and athletic Tarzan, Chester Gregory II is engaging and funny as his sidekick Terk, Alex Rutherford (who alternates with Daniel Manche in the role of Young Tarzan) is impressive and never cloying, and Merle Dandridge and Shuler Hensley work diligently to put over the material they've been assigned as Tarzan's gorilla parents. (Jenn Gambatese and Donnie Keshawarz never rise above two dimensionality, however, as Jane and Clayton.) And, as I said, the ensemble is terrific, and what's more, they seem to be having a good time doing all that leaping and jumping and plunging and soaring and what-not.
A final thought: this is a show for kids. Keep that in mind. Leave your jaded self at home and enjoy the fun parts.