Early in the first act of Tarzan there is a dance number involving the apes in which the music boils over into a fierce sort of animal energy. Meryl Tankard's choreography builds with the music right up to the edge of anarchy - but there is method in the madness and we can see, despite the wild physical careening on stage, that there is a cohesion that binds these movements together into a dance. It is a thrillingly original number that excites the blood. You sit forward in your seat, thinking that if this Tarzan has that kind of imagination and drive, then this is going to be an incredible musical. But that's it. From that point on, Tarzan quickly takes on a different shape as it is hammered into an all-too-familiar Disney formula that robs the show of its vitality and strips it of its fundamental identity. In the end, it becomes a muddled clone of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, sans a decent score.
From a commercial point of view, it may well be that the Disney suits are right. Their formula has obviously served them well with two long-running shows that are nothing less than money machines. But one can create a formula show that has good music and smart lyrics. And one can create a formula show that has a clever book. This Tarzan has neither. It is derivative in the extreme. The parallels are shockingly obvious. Using The Lion King as our model for the men, Simba is Tarzan. Simba's father, Mufasa, finds his equivalent in the ape tribe leader, Kerchak. Both fathers have to die in order for their sons to discover their true place in the world. Using Beauty and the Beast as our model for the woman's side of the story, the strong, intelligent female role model that is Belle in Beauty in the Beast is mirrored by the strong, intelligent female role model that is Jane in Tarzan. Both Belle and Jane have sweet, good-natured, fuzzy-headed scientist fathers (and no mothers). The parallels continue: Scar in The Lion King, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, and the Great White Hunter Mr. Clayton in Tarzan are, essentially, the same kind of bad guy. In other words, Tarzan is a musical by the numbers, and we don't mean songs.
No, we don't mean the songs because the score (by Phil Collins) is, perhaps, the weakest part of the show. The book (David Henry Hwang) is not far behind. But the set and costume design by Bob Crowley make it clear that the designer had a great deal of fun spending Disney's money. Crowley's direction of the show, however, is no match for his set design. The show never flies, except insofar as Pichon Baldinu has designed all the vine swinging and, hey, that's the biggest (if not most impressive) part of the show – which is unfortunate.
The cast has to make something out of a bland book and score, and several rise to the occasion through the force of their own talent. Shuler Hensley as Kerchak, the tough love leader of the apes, gives a truly commanding performance. Merle Dandridge as Tarzan's ape mother, Kala, gives a warm and winning performance, as well. Chester Gregory II as Terk, a wisecracking ape who helps the young Tarzan – and can really belt out a tune - could emerge from this show as a major star. Jenn Gambatese as Jane is winsome, but Josh Strickland as the adult Tarzan is talented but bland. He's wildly athletic, sings well, acts competently, but simply doesn't have the spark. But it has the formula. And that just might be enough to keep Tarzan swinging out into the audience for years and years to come.
4 ½ Stars: Shining City
It isn't flashy like The History Boys. It isn't a classic like Awake and Sing! And it doesn't have the cachet of a Ralph Fiennes in it, like Faith Healer, but don't let Conor McPherson's Shining City slip through the cracks during this crowded theater season.
A small play with a cast of four exquisite actors, it's not so much a ghost story as it is a story about finding someone (or something) to believe in. But not to mislead you, it is a ghost story, but it's very different from what you might expect. In some sense, all four of the characters in the play are leading ghostly lives, each of them metaphorically floating outside the mainstream of society.
John (Oliver Platt) is in emotional turmoil, unable to sleep, feeling that he was somehow responsible for his wife's death in a car accident because of his passion for another woman. He seeks out a therapist, Ian (Brían F. O'Byrne), who is having problems of his own. Ian left the Catholic Church to be with a woman (Martha Plimpton) who has had his baby, but now he's leaving her, as well. Her life is on the verge of smashing apart while he must find out if he's gay or not - which brings us to a hustler (Peter Scanavino) who is living his own shattered life. All of these wounded souls are, in their own fashion, seeking solace. The play's gasp-inducing finale provides that solace from an unexpected source. It is a very powerful and satisfying conclusion.
There are a great many fine performance on New York stages this season, but nothing tops the work of Brían F. O'Byrne who could not be more vulnerable than in his scene with the hustler. Oliver Platt is mesmerizing in his long and engrossing monologue about his affair with another woman. Martha Plimpton is as real as rain in her performance as a woman who feels utterly betrayed. And Scanavino is unexpectedly tender as the hustler, without ever letting down his tough veneer. Directed with stark honesty by Robert Falls, Shining City is as delicate as it is finally (and wonderfully) flamboyant.
[Please note: The Siegel Column is using a 5 star rating system with 5 being its highest rating.]