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A CurtainUp Review
Tarzan, the Musical

Do you know how many apes are lost to under-ripe bananas? It's a silent epidemic --- Terk, a wise-cracking jungle hipster and Tarzan's buddy.

Jenn Gambatese and Josh Strickland in Tarzan
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It was bound to happen: After successfully turning its animated stories of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King into long-running Broadway hits, could a musical about Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs' heroic ape man be far behind. Disney Productions' 1999 animated film with its Phil Collins score promised to turn the box office as green as Tarzan's jungle habitat. With an advance sale of close to twenty million dollars' worth of tickets and their powerful marketing machine in full gear, the Disney folks may well have the last all-the-way-to-the-bank laugh even though the first critics voicing their opinions were as unimpressed with Tarzan's apes as Lestat's vampires.

The second round of reviews, including this one, are not going to declare this Disneyfied Edward Rice Burroughs story a work of art. And so, Tarzan, will have to survive and prosper courtesy of that sizeable universe of people who never read reviews and for whom the Disney imprint evokes expectations for a family friendly story in which good triumphs over evil. Those expectations are boosted by staging pizzazz that features lots of high flying jungle creatures as well as a Phil Collins score that includes an arrow to the heart ballad ("You'll Be in My Heart") that has already nabbed an Oscar.

Given the blatant borrowing from Julie Taymor's The Lion King (not to mention a raft of popular Disney character and thematic twists), this less classy looking show is not likely to generate quite the must-see word of mouth that has kept that more imaginatively designed and directed Lion King running for years. Still, Tarzan has plenty to make your mouth pop open and some segments are quite spectacular.

The opening sequence is especially impressive. The blue scrim curtain with its intriguing moving images of the African continent, a large sailing vessel and the ship's handwritten log is transformed into a raging sea. This exciting sea and soundscape cleverly takes us inside the ship as a man, woman and baby desperately struggle against the raging tide and are tossed up on the beach. But while the little family survives the storm, the parents fall victim to a predatory panther (such dark set-ups are not unusual in the Disney world). The human family's tragedy has its counterpart in a jungle couple in grief over the loss of their baby -- Kala (sympathetically portrayed by Disney musical veteran Merle Dandridge) and her Gorilla mate Kerchak (Shuler Hensley, capturing ape behavior better than anyone on stage and with the magnificent bass voice won him a Tony for Oklahoma as fine as ever).

From this breathtaking opening, the tragedy takes a more hopeful turn -- but, alas, also becomes more sappily sentimental, without the adventure and more fully realized characterizations of the Burroughs' stories. The bereaved Kala discovers the crying infant, names him Tarzan (for white-skinned) and becomes his devoted mother. Before long, Kerchak, ever alert to danger posed by outsiders (which, for him, includes Tarzan), forces Kala to raise choose between him and the child. It's a no brainer that she opts for the child even if it means living apart from the ape community.

With the various jungle inhabitants flying all over the stage courtesy of Pinchon Baldinu's Cirque de Soleil style aerial feats, there's enough eye candy to keep you from becoming bored with David Henry Hwang's now more politically correct, super-condensed but banal book and Phil Collins non-theatrical, unmemorable and constantly off-stage enhanced music. While Hwang's sanitizing of the apes' and the ape-raised Tarzan's delight in hunting and killing is understandable, the often dopey dialogue does little to free these characters from cartoon molds.

Hwang's book zooms through young Tarzan's (Daniel Manche at the performance I attended) childhood faster than you can say "Oo-oo-ee-eh-ou," (Ape-speak for "Hello") -- which brings grown up Tarzan (former American Idol contestant, Josh Strickland making his Broadway debut) swinging from the vines on stage. He's learned "pendulation" from his jive-talking ape pal, Terk (an amusing Chester Gregory II) and is ready for the subsidiary plot: falling in love with visiting flora and fauna lover Jane Porter (Jenn Gambatese, a charming enough cross between Mary Poppins and Beauty and the Beast's Belle) and her animal rights minded dad (Tim Jerome, a lovable version of Frank Morgan's Wizard), and eventually having to choose between civilized life and his jungle family. It's another no brainer outcome.

Crowley's direction is overly propulsive and for all his experience as a Disney show designer, neither his green fringe framed jungle set or his ape costumes are particularly attractive. Meryl Tankard's choreography is excessively frantic and the diddling with harnesses tends to rob the aerial wizardry of its magic. That said, there are some other striking choreographic and scenic highlights: The pulsating "Son of Man" number accompanying Strickland's vine swining entrance and the very elaborate fantasia accompanying Jane's "Waiting for This Moment." You're in no danger of leaving the Richard Rodgers Theatre with one of Collins' tunes stuck in your ears, but you are likely to remember that scene's exquisite flying moth.

To support the Disney Organization's gamble that there is a built-in audience for anything Tarzan, a Google search will return some 3,490,000 English pages. This includes the official Tarzan organization, a Tarzan movie guide, a fan site for the Disney Tarzan movie, not to mention a number of Tarzan novels to download and read from Project Gutenberg. Here's some trivia my Googling unearthed:

The most famous Tarzan and Jane were Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan who starred in six of more than thirty 1960s Tarzan movies: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan and His Mate (1934), Tarzan Escapes(1936), Tarzan Finds a Son (1939), Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941) and Tarzan's New York Adventure.(1942)

The MGM moguls hopes for Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan almost collapsed because of his contract as a spokesperson for BVD underwear and swimming trunks. The manufacturer didn't like the idea of their spokesman appearing on screen wearing a loincloth. While MGM refused to have Tarzan wear a product instead, a compromise was reached: BVD was allowed to run ads featuring contract players like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow in BVD swimsuits.

Other movie Tarzans included Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Mike Henry and Jock Mahoney.

Producedwell before the age of political correctness, the Tarzan movies reflected racial attitudes that would today be considered offensive. That said, the white man didn't come off all that well either.

If you want to test your friends' trivia savvy, ask them how would you connect Woody Allen to Tarzan. The answer: Maureen O'Sullivan was the mother of Allen's former wife Mia Farrow.

The much quoted "Me Tarzan, you Jane" is actually one of the most widely circulated misquotes. It was never used --not in the book or any of the films. Though there's a scene in the current musical that comes close to that famous get acquainted phrase.

Music & Lyrics by Phil Collins
Book by David Henry Hwang based the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes and the 1999 screenplay by Tab Murphy-Bob Tzudiker-Noni Whiteand
Directed by Bob Crowley
Choreography by Meryl Tankard
Cast: Josh Strickland (Tarzan), Jenn Gambatese (Jane Porter), Merle Dandridge (Kala), Shuler Hensley (Kerchak), Chester Gregory II (Terk), Tim Jerome (Professor Porter), Donnie Keshawarz (Mr. Clayton), Daniel Manche and Alex Rutherford (alternate in the role of Young Tarzan) and Horace V. Rogers (Snipes)
Set & Costume Design: Bob Crowley
Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
Sound Design: John Shivers
Aerial Movement: Pichon Baldinu
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission
Disney Theatrical Productions at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St (Broadway/8th Av) 212-307-4100
From 3/24/06; opening 5/10/06
Tickets: $51.25 - $101.25

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 17th performance

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Two Worlds /Voice of Tarzan, Ensemble
  • You'll Be in My / Kala, Ensemble
  • Jungle Funk Instrumental
  • Who Better Than Me? / Terk, Young Tarzan
  • No Other Way / Kerchak
  • I Need to Know / Young Tarzan
  • Son of Man / Terk, Tarzan, Ensemble
  • Son of Man (Reprise) / Terk, Tarzan, Ensemble
  • Sure As Sun Turns to Moon / Kala, Kerchak
  • Waiting for This Moment / Jane, Ensemble
  • Different /Varzan
Act Two
  • Trashin' the Camp /Terk, Ensemble
  • Like No Man I've Ever Seen / Jane, Porter
  • Strangers Like Me / Tarzan, Jane, Ensemble
  • For the First Time / Jane, Tarzan
  • Who Better Than Me? (Reprise) / Terk, Tarzan
  • Everything That I Am / Voice of Young Tarzan, Tarzan, Kala, Ensemble
  • You'll Be in My Heart (Reprise) / Tarzan, Kala
  • Sure As Sun Turns to Moon (Reprise) / Kala
  • Two Worlds (Finale) /Ensemble
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