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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Jimmy Mason and Jessica LaFever
Photo by Joyce Goldschmid
Immediately upon entering the Lucie Stern Theatre, audience members cannot help but be struck by two sights. The theatre is an enthralling scene of jungle plants, greenery, and hanging vines imaginatively designed by Patrick Klein and Nikolaj Sorenson. On the jungle floor and on various levels of trees, rocks, and mounds, there are black, hairy-like figures sitting, rolling, tumbling, walking, and incredibly looking like live gorillas—many of the same movements and antics one might see at the Gorilla Preserve in the San Francisco Zoo. Even before the first note of the Phil Collins (music and lyrics) score or word of David Hwang's book for Tarzan is heard, director Patrick Klein and his cast—one that includes a dozen or so playing gorillas of all sizes, shapes, and ages—have captured us as an entering audience and ensured our undivided attention. With Tarzan as their 88th season opener, Palo Alto Players presents a highly entertaining, fun and funny, and genuinely heartwarming jungle adventure and love story.

Since the first Tarzan of the Apes movie in 1918, there have been an astounding fifty or so movies about the baby boy who was raised by a family of gorillas after his shipwrecked parents were killed in the jungles of Africa (in the this musical's version, by a leopard). Plots vary widely, many stretching into the ridiculous during the ever-popular Johnny Weissmuller days of Tarzan flicks.

The Collins/Hwang musical of 2006 follows quite closely to the version of the Tarzan legend that Disney used for its 1999 animated film. After a short introduction of the shipwreck (cinematically recreated for this production in impressive, big-screen style by Patrick Klein and Jeff Grafton) and the fatal attack by a slinking, leaping leopard (authentically on the prowl for prey by Grace Hutton), a passing female gorilla hears the crying baby. After some sniffs and curious looks, she decides to take the strange, white-skinned infant as her own (after having recently lost her own baby to the same leopard).

Kala immediately finds a mother's love for this boy-thing she has found, with Phaedra Tillery singing in a voice emotional and soothing to the now-quiet babe, "You'll Be in My Heart." But she must first convince the giant, greying Kerchak, her mate and the leader of the gorilla tribe, that she can keep the boy she has now named "Tarzan" ("white-skin" in gorilla language).

Kerchak knows from his own childhood the destructive, killing nature of white-skinned creatures in the jungle. His initial, begrudging approval of her raising the baby changes into an exiling of the now-boy Tarzan when Tarzan's human nature kicks in as he discovers how to make a spear out of a stick with a stone tied to it. With a deep, reverberating voice that shakes the very seats we sit in, the gigantic Kerchak (Michael D. Reed) sings "No Other Way" as he sends a confused Tarzan into the jungle to live on his own—a move that forces Kala to make a choice to leave the family in order to raise her "son."

Both Phaedra Tillery as Kala and Michael D. Reed as Kerchak continue to thrill the audience throughout the night with their uniquely different and singularly striking voices as well as their abilities to portray two animals who bring qualities we humans can only respect and admire. They are especially moving in their love duet of "Sure as Sun Turns to Moon," where the diminutive Kala and the towering, massive-shouldered Kerchak reunite, ending Tarzan's and her exile.

Before that time, however, the boy Tarzan first must learn (after some hard knocks) how to move, swing, grunt, and survive as a member of the gorilla family. With his pal Terk (Jenika Fernando), young Tarzan (Oliver Copaken Yellin) sings "Who Better than Me?," with each ringing out in sure-sounding, solid voices as they and the other young gorillas do somersaults, hand-stands, flips, and general monkeying-around (excuse the pun)—just like kids anywhere.

Oliver Copaken Yellin's innocent, sweet boy voice of Young Tarzan and his curiosity of who he is rings forth true in "I Need to Know" as he dreams, "There must be somebody just like me, out there." In a scene of his tumbling, playing, and dancing with his ape-siblings (all the while, Nick Kenrick conducts in exciting, thrilling style the excellent ten-piece orchestra), there suddenly appears the now-grown Tarzan, fully buff in his loin cloth, who quickly leaps into the air to swing on a couple of vines to the delight of the entire audience.

Jimmy Mason wins many points and accolades for the way he captures the moves, the looks, and the demeanor of a young man who—when we meet his grown-up self—is clearly more ape than human, but who slowly begins to discover the deeply rooted part of himself that his genetic code defines him to be. That process is certainly accelerated when he saves a young woman, Jane Porter, from an attacking scorpion (one that has threateningly crawled on many legs down the aisle, causing more than just a few audience, startled gasps).

The ensuing scenes of Tarzan and Jane getting to know each other (and eventually falling in love) are well sculpted and acted, with Jessica LaFever knocking it out of the park in her portrayal of this wide-eyed, curious, and unabashedly brave young woman, bringing a singing voice that is luxuriously clear—full of wonder and lust for life. Each time she sings, she soars with big-stage abilities. Often she is in duet with Jimmy Mason, causing the difference in their vocal abilities and qualities unfortunately to be evident. While Mr. Mason is a winner in so many ways in his role as Tarzan, his tendency to over-sing with a voice that does not have the strength and depth to do so weakens his overall performance when compared to the rest of this cast, who tend to shine again and again vocally.

That latter point is particularly true for the grown-up version of Tarzan's pal Terk. Daniel Lloyd Pias sells, sells, and sells again both the big heart and the saucy, devilish show-off side of his character in both action and song. When Terk leads the stage-filling troupe of his gorilla pals in "Trashin' the Camp" of Jane and her professor father (a totally delightful George Mauro as Professor Potter), Terk et al open the second act with a number energetically, hilariously choreographed by Claire Alexander (who must have studied many hours of videos of young gorillas in their natural abode). And every time his Terk sings, he belts note after note with power and pitch-perfect pizzazz.

That scene of the mischievous gorillas is one of several that stand out as particularly eye-popping and big-time on this medium-sized stage. Choreographer Alexander, director Klein, and costume designer Patricia Tyler team up with the singing talents of Ms. LaFever and several women of the diversely talented ensemble in a number so unique, fascinating, and beautiful that it defies written description. Enough to say is that in the accompaniment of Jane's lilting "Waiting for This Moment," exotic plants of the jungle come to life as they pop out in all sorts of ways from under colorful, body-covering caps that look at first like giant mushrooms, eventually becoming a ballet-like chorus around the enthralled Jane.

Every Disney-inspired story needs its villain, and Gary M. Giurbino, sleazily with plenty of cynical snarl, fits the bill as Mr. Clayton, the Professor's jungle guide who has eyes on ways to make big bucks by capturing gorillas—and maybe even a wild ape-man. John Ramirez-Ortiz is his somewhat faithful yet endearingly, silly sidekick Snipes.

In past Palo Alto Players musicals, an issue sometimes has been the sound balance and mix within Lucie Stern Theatre. Whatever issues there have been in the past, Brandie Larkin as sound designer conquers them all in this production, with singers and orchestra perfectly rendered along with the symphonic sounds one associates with a jungle setting. Edward Hunter's lighting design helps bring the steamy setting to life with the proper shadows and arrays of sunlight making their way through the canopy, while Scott Ludwig (properties) and Gwyneth Price Panos (hair and make-up) deserve special call-outs for helping make setting, gorillas, and the two Tarzans remarkably magical and imaginative.

The musical's songs and music of Phil Collins—especially the lyrics—are only slightly above "B" quality and will probably never be celebrated in the Great American Songbook. However, when rendered by this cast and director, they provide the musical background that allows voices to shine brilliantly and a spunky, exhilarating evening to evolve with lots of color and comedy. And along the way, we are reminded once again that love can cross all sorts of forbidden boundaries if we only respect and honor those who might at first seem totally different from ourselves.

Tarzan, through September 23, 2018, by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.

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