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Broadway Reviews

Tarzan

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 10, 2006

Tarzan Music and lyrics by Phil Collins. Book by David Henry Hwang. Based on the story Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Disney film Tarzan, screenplay by Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker & Noni White, directed by Kevin Lima & Chris Buck. Direction by Bon Crowley. Choreography by Meryl Tankard. Choreography by Meryl Tankard. Aerial design by Pichón Baldinu. Scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by John Shivers. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Make-up design by Naomi Donne. Soundscape by Lon Bender. Special creatures by Ivo Coveney. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Vocal arrangements by Paul Bogaev. Dance arrangements by Jim Abbott. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Musical Director Jim Abbott. Music Coordinator Michael Keller. Cast: Josh Strickland, Jenn Gambatese, Merle Dandridge, Chester Gregory II, Tim Jerome, Donnie Keshawarz, Daniel Manche, Alex Rutherford, and Shuler Hensley; Darrin Baker, Marcus Bellamy, Celina Carvajal, Dwayne Clark, Veronica deSoyza, Kearran Giovanni, Michael Hollick, Joshua Kobak, Kara Madrid, Kevin Massey, Anastacia McCleskey, Rika Okamoto, Marlyn Ortiz, Whitney Osentoski, John Elliot Oyzon, Andy Pellick, Angela Phillips, Stefan Raulston, Horace V. Rogers, Sean Samuels, Nick Sanchez, Niki Scalera, Natalie Silverlieb, JD Aubrey Smith, Rachel Stern.
Theatre: Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Ticket price: Orchestra and Front Mezzanine $251.25 - $111.25, Rear Mezzanine $91.25 - $51.25
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Don't believe anyone who tells you there's no entertainment value in Tarzan. While Disney's stage adaptation of its 1999 animated film, which just opened at the Richard Rodgers, might at first seem a theatrical black hole, there are in fact numerous joys for the intrepid theatregoer.

And, believe it or not, they're found in David Henry Hwang's libretto. Where else could ammunition for mockery be proffered so readily, practically on a silver platter? Following are several sample lines from Tarzan's book, along with possible retorts. Theatre lovers are encouraged, nay expected, to devise their own as well:

"Not everybody can fall down that often and still get up!" "Disney Theatricals does a great job!"

"'Can't' is a box in which we hold our limitations." "You mean like the Richard Rodgers?"

"You're rapidly sliding down the evolutionary ladder!" "Tarzan proves there's not much farther for theatre to go!"

Yes, we can thank Hwang for the hours and hours of fun to be derived from Tarzan's book. But for the fact that hardly any of it is intentional, and that this bloated behemoth is one of the most deadening shows to arrive on Broadway since the last Hwang-Disney collaboration of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida in 2000, we must blame Hwang and director Bob Crowley. They've worked tirelessly to make this adaptation of Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White's Disney screenplay and Edgar Rice Burroughs's original story as offensive to serious theatregoers as it is inoffensive to mass audiences.

Julie Taymor successfully courted both groups with her direction for Disney's stage adaptation of The Lion King, using tried-and-true techniques to deliver sumptuous visuals while serving the story. And during the isolated times that happens in Tarzan, the results are as close to impressive as anything is here: The harrowing opening sequence, depicting the storm, shipwreck, and fateful Africa landfall of Tarzan's parents, suggests Crowley is following Taymor's visionary example in creating a spectacular, kinetic theatrical event.

But as soon as it's time to focus on the titular ape man, Tarzan becomes a huge, vine-entangled mess. It's clear that, following Tarzan's parents' deaths, apes Kerchak (Tony winner Shuler Hensley) and Kala (Merle Dandridge) raise him to youth (Daniel Manche and Alex Rutherford alternate) and adulthood (Josh Strickland), that Alpha Male Kerchak perceives him as a danger to the tribe, and that Tarzan falls for beautiful visiting biologist Jane Porter (Jenn Gambatese). But it seems that no vision - let alone common sense - has been used to bring this story to life.

The tree-representing "walls" of Crowley's sets look like the tissue-paper-streamer remnants of a birthday party for a child with an unhealthy green fixation. Crowley's costumes are half-hearted Victorian knock-offs for the humans, and for the ape chorus resemble a leather bar on caveman theme night. The mostly successful lighting (Natasha Katz) now and again plays with shadow, silhouette, and perspective in ways that might be effective were they supported by the writing.

As for the aerial design (Pichón Baldinu), it creates some spectacular moments, including a tense fight between Tarzan and a menacing leopard, and a giant moth (which descends from the mezzanine) that Jane discovers upon arrival in Africa. But the enormous, clunky ropes and harnesses that Tarzan and the ape chorus use to swing, rappel, and climb about all levels of the stage do little to conjure a world of illusion rather than one of rabid, jungly camp.

Of course, as the apes and humans are all singing Phil Collins songs, magic was probably always a long shot. Collins, a soft-rock sensation of the 1980s whose career has somehow not waned as his contemporaries' have, has retained his songs for the film (including the syrupy, inexplicably Oscar-winning "You'll Be In My Heart") and penned new ones every bit as forgettable. His lyrics are better than those Bernie Taupin gave this season's other pop-schlock score, Lestat, but are too droning, repetitive, and nonspecific to be even decent theatre music.

Thus the casting of Strickland, an erstwhile American Idol semifinalist, makes sense; he can at least sing in the overblown, overamplified manner Collins's anesthetic music calls for. True, you don't get much deep character work (nor, to be fair, does Hwang's book encourage it). But you do get plenty of vine swinging, backflips, and primal grunting, as befit all good apes living in Meryl Tankard's choreographic wild kingdom.

Of the other performers, only Dandridge creates a believable human being, though unfortunately she's playing an ape. Chester Gregory II doesn't have enough free-wheeling fun with Tarzan's primate pal Terk, and Hensley, in full-force furrowed-eyebrow-brooding mode, has real difficulties overcoming Kerchak's one-level motivations. This means that other performers with less to do - such as Tim Jerome as Jane's well-meaning professor father and Donnie Keshawarz as a bloodthirsty American-hick hunter - have no chance at all.

But if you must pity someone, make it Gambatese. An adept singer and game young actress constantly misused by Broadway (she last starred in All Shook Up), she gets the show's only intentionally funny line (comparing ape-speak to the Romance languages), but is otherwise saddled with nonstop thankless tasks as the story's token Sierra Club representative. How can you help but feel for someone whose introductory number requires her to marvel at Africa's native flora and fauna (which resemble an LSD-fueled Little Shop of Horrors) while rattling off their scientific names in all their incomprehensible glory?

The rest of the lyrics and dialogue could just as well be in Latin, too, for all the difference it would make. But then you'd likely miss timeless lines like Gregory's "Should I be punished for my intelligence?" No, Terk. But Hwang, Crowley, Collins, and the rest should be punished for their lack of it in bringing this fur-trimmed fiasco to Broadway.




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