Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Not Enough Disney Magic: Tarzan the Musical Disappoints

My final review for class at 600 Words:

Something was lost in the translation of Tarzan from the movie to the Broadway stage—its heart. Tarzan is visually stunning, but after a while an attractive surface can’t compensate for a boring script and an average cast.

Tarzan the Musical, adapted from the 1999 Disney animated film, adapted from Edgar Rice Burrough’s book, began performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (46th and Broadway) on May 10, 2006. The original cast is still performing save one of the two boys who alternate in the role of Young Tarzan.

The musical tells the all too familiar story of Tarzan (Josh Strickland, in a surprisingly decent transition from the American Idol stage to Broadway), the ape man. Baby Tarzan and his parents are stranded on the West African shore after a thunderstorm. His parents are killed by the leopard, Sabor. Kala (Merle Dandridge), a gorilla, finds Tarzan and raises him as her own despite the objections of Kerchak (Shuler Hensley), her husband. Tarzan grows up never understanding who he is, until he meets Jane Porter (painfully annoying Jenn Gambatese). Of course, they fall in love and Tarzan is torn between two worlds.

Many of the faults in the production come from David Henry Hwang’s book. The stale dialogue does not provide adequate build up to the songs. The jokes are seldom funny and the conversations are awkward.

The saving grace of the show is its design. In the impressive first scene, when Tarzan and his parents are shipwrecked, Natasha Katz’s lighting dazzles the audience with her thunderstorm effects. The scenery changes in a matter of minutes from a sinking ship, to the majestic underwater, to a sandy shore, to a tree house in the jungle.

Although the jungle set on its own is not much more than a bunch of bright green vines, Pichon Baldinu’s striking aerial choreography enlivens it as apes frantically swing through the air.

Bob Crowley does triple duty as director, scenic designer, and costume designer, but his strength lies in the costuming. His gorillas sport unruly dreadlocks and have enough hair on their shoulders and lower bodies to make them look ape-like while still retaining their human features.

Phil Collins penned 10 new songs in addition to the five originals from the film. His score is irresistible (despite excessive use of synthesizers) in its saccharin melodies and lyrics and jungle rhythms. The songs are more effective in the film, as Collins pop sensibilities are more suited to the performance style than most of the actors.

In the entire cast, there are only two exceptional performers. The stand-out performance was given by Shuler Hensley in the role of Kerchak, Tarzan’s father. He not only embodied the movements of a gorilla, but he gave his character more depth than the script called for. In “No Other Way,” he sings in a rich baritone about having to send Tarzan away with pain and conflict, but never going over the top.

Chester Gregory II’s Terk (Tarzan’s best friend) is completely different from Rosie O’Donnell’s film version, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that the stage Terk is stereotyped as a black badass. Gregory does his best with the role and even accomplishes the tricky feat of singing upside down.

The problem with the musical can be exemplified by one scene. When Tarzan introduces Jane to Kala, he says three words, “She’s my mother.” It is a beautiful moment in the film, with the emotions of the characters perfectly conveyed in the animation, but on the stage those lines are thrown away and the incident is as unmemorable as the show itself.

Prices range from $51.25 to $111.25 with performances every night except Monday and Tuesday and matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

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