The Rose comes wonderfully alive in its production of Tarzan The Stage Musical. Credit director Kit McKay and assistant director /choreographer Sue Gillespie Bolton for every vibrant, sweet and colorful movement in the production numbers. The dancing singers move with vigor and precision as a variety of apes. They make the stage their natural territory as if some kind of joyful family. And, when humans file into their seats before the show and during intermission, those performers even own the theater aisles as if hoping for love. How could you not love them? In addition to 24 such cast members, eight other people have roles along with 12 musicians in the orchestra to expertly personify this major undertaking.
Chances are that most local people will think of this as only for youngsters given its venue, adults bringing children. Of course, intelligent, well-conceived children’s theatre at its best appeals to everyone. Certainly the aim of the movie and of the new stage version is to have such an audience. Given the fascination of the famed subject, you could be interested regardless of your age.
David Henry Hwang wrote the script for this live re-working of the 1999 Disney animated movie. Both incorporate elements from the original source, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 book Tarzan of the Apes, although in this take the featured creatures are interchangeably called gorillas and apes. A few attempts at polemics peek through, such as issues of discrimination against outsiders and the need for interspecies kinship.
Phil Collins’ 15 sometimes overly long songs, plus four reprises, dominate the production, meaning that the story can seem more sketched-in rather than developed. His generic lyrics stay more decorative than narrative and do little to fill in the story. As for the music, it come across mostly as pop and pop-rock with little to distinguish it except in some good percussive elements in the orchestrations which may be Doug Besterman’s from the Broadway score; the program book doesn’t say.
The Broadway production, by the way, featured a lot of swinging on vines. The local one has virtually none of that, depending instead on a considerable amount of vivid, well-done leaping, jumping and crawling amid multi -level platforms.
Tarzan’s English parents are shipwrecked in Africa and killed by a leopard. The infant survives and is adopted by a female gorilla, Kala. Her mate, Kerchak, refuses to accept him as a son. The boy grows into a man and kills the leopard causing Kerchak to accept Tarzan. A group of human explorers arrives, among whom is naturalist Jane. Her father, Professor Porter, is there, as is their guide Mr. Clayton. Tarzan, falling in love with Jane, gets interested in becoming more like the humans, Clayton tricks him into leading some of the explorers to the gorillas to capture or kill them. Happy ending. Tarzan stays with his animal family. Jane joins them.
There are actually five deaths in this telling. You might think that that would upset small children in the audience. However, all the deaths are staged symbolically rather than graphically. Oddly, though, the final one is not in the Broadway script where Clayton’s life is spared. Professor Porter intervenes on his behalf, consistent with the idea that the Professor is enlightened. He’s also against cruelty to animals. Unfortunately these affirmative elements are missing from the production here.
Ryan Heidenriech’s unceasing, seemingly untiring athleticism leaves a strong impression as fully-grown Tarzan. He acts with simple conviction, capably suggesting human innocence. Hwang’s elemental script doesn’t give him much more than that. Along with all members of the cast, Heidenriech sings sturdily in good voice. Camille Metoyer Moten shines with radiant sweetness as Kala while Roderick Cotton has strong and believable presence as Kerchak. Both interpretations seem more human than Brian-Mark Connover and Walter Shatley’s takes on Professor Porter and Mr. Clayton. They come across more as cartoons; which could be consistent with their animated counterparts but diminishes their believability amid other characters with more substance. Jane is portrayed by Megan Leigh Pattison. At the performance I attended, most of her words sounded garbled, as if she were projecting unnecessarily and too forcefully and into her body microphone. (Full disclosure: I auditioned for the role of Professor Porter.)
Director McKay’s staging stays full of life and color. A charming example: he has apes/gorillas relaxed in backgrounds, holding onto each other, as if their natural habitat, trees. Speaking of color, Sherri Geerdes designed clever albeit simple costumes which use various hues to give an impression of separate families in this animal community.
Characteristically, the program book provides no background on anyone involved in creating the show, nor anyone onstage or backstage locally. You might like to know about director McKay. She is the Executive Director of Northern Michigan theatre company Parallel 45 and Associate Director of the Performance Series at American Dance Institute in Rockville, Maryland.
The ensemble includes six delightful tiny tots as baby apes. Some may be even younger than their peers in the audience. As for how the show might affect those children in their seats, the biggest potential for restlessness could be the running time, about two hours including the intermission. However, when I was there for a Saturday matinee, few such reactions were evident. That may be due to constantly vivid scenes.
No doubt, everyone can be charmed.
Tarzan, The Stage Musical continues through June 22nd at The Rose Theater, 2001 Farnam St. Omaha Fri: 7 p.m. Sat: 2 p.m. Sun: 2 p.m. Tickets: $20-25. Reservations required.http://www.rosetheater.org