Tarzan

  • Date:
    May 1, 2006
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman

    Music & Lyrucs by: Phil Collins
    Book by: David Henry Hwang
    Adapted from the screenplay by:Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White
    Based on the novel: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
    Directed by: Bob Crowley
    Cast: Josh Strickland (Tarzan), Jenn Gambatese (Jane), Merle Dandridge (Kala), Shuler Hensley (Kerchak), Chester Gregory II (Terk), Timothy Jerome (Professor Porter) and Donnie Keshawarz (Clayton). Daniel Manche and Alex Rutherford will alternate in the role of Young Tarzan.
    Synopsis: A shipwreck leaves an infant orphaned on the West African shore. The helpless baby is taken under the protection of a gorilla tribe and becomes part of their family. When he eventually encounters his first human - Jane Porter, a curious young explorer - both their worlds are transformed forever.
     

     

    "Tarzan" has been swinging around the story books for nearly 100 years, but the musical that's now on Broadway is more than old-fashioned monkey business -- it's a real good show.

    The original tale first appeared in cheap pulp fiction magazines around the turn of the 20th century, sporting titles such as "Weird Tales" and "Amazing Stories," and the fiction that was published was usually serialized so that people would feel compelled to buy the next issue. Except for "Tarzan."

    "Tarzan of the Apes -- A Romance of the Jungle," written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was published in its entirety in the October 1912 issue of "All Story" magazine, with a garishly illustrated cover of a man sitting astride a rampaging lion, his knife upraised, ready to take his prey. The cost was 15 cents.

    This odd story, neither fantasy nor science fiction, was a fabulous best-seller that endures today, not only in jokes -- as in Me Tarzan, you Jane -- but in cartoons, children's books, and now as an entertaining Disney spectacle.

    The pre-opening buzz among the cognoscenti and literati was laughter (silly story), disdain (so low-brow), and derision (everyone decrying the Disney-fication of Broadway), but Disney knows how to do this stuff ("Aida," "The Lion King," and "Beauty and the Beast") and "Tarzan" is not so silly, not so low-brow, and in every respect by which we judge musicals, high-quality.

    Spectacle is what gets you first. The story opens on the sea with thunder, crashing waves, and a ship being tossed about, simulated with the use of two waving scrims that could make you seasick. It is a breathtaking special effect that sets the tone for the rest of the show.

    After the storm, a man and woman awaken on a white sandy beach which is actually the vertical back wall of the stage, and the couple "walk" down this wall into the jungle (another extraordinary special effect).

    Meanwhile, back in the jungle, an ape, Kala, finds their human baby. Her own had been stolen by a panther and she takes this little one to replace it. Her husband, however, a majestic silverback named Kerchak, orders her to return the child to the jungle: "This is a danger to the tribe; it won't replace our son."

    But Kala's motherly instinct wins out and she raises the little boy, whom she named Tarzan, singing to him "You'll Be In My Heart," the first of Phil Collins' pop tunes that was written for the show.

    Though Kerchak never approves, Tarzan lives with the apes, and is befriended and mentored by Terk who teaches him to swing through the trees, fend off predators, and give his famous breast-beating yell. It is not until a party of anthropologists come to the African jungle that Tarzan learns he is not an ape, develops human language, and falls in love with Jane.

    The story, adapted for the stage by David Henry Hwang, is thoughtfully and intelligently, rendered, a humane account of what seems like a preposterous plot, but actually isn't. Accounts of feral children (brought up without human contact) have been recorded as early as 1341 and as recently as 2002. The beautifully written children's book, The Wild Boy by Mordicai Gerstein, tells of the discovery of a young boy in 1800, in southern France, who was brought back to civilization by a young doctor who cared for him.

    This is part of the reason the Tarzan story seems so believable. But much credit also goes to the marvelous Shuler Hensley who imbues Kerchak with a dignity and integrity that makes this ape admirable. Merle Dandridge is a loving Kala and Jenn Gambatese gives Jane's love for Tarzan the respect it needs for it to be plausible.

    "Tarzan" is a family show, and if you're looking for a musical that'll please kids of a wide age range, and one the adults will enjoy as well, this is it.

     

     

    What the critics had to say.....

    BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says �Almost everybody and everything swings in 'Tarzan.' Which is odd, since the show itself, to borrow from Duke Ellington's famous credo, definitely ain't got that swing.�

    CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST says "Disney's new musical swung shakily into the Richard Rodgers Theatre last night, and as far I'm concerned, it can swing right back out again."

    HOWARD KISSELL of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says "'Tarzan' wouldn't make the grade as a ride at Disney World. On Broadway, it seems merely a tourist trap."

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of the STAR-LEDGER says "Worse than anything, this dumbed-down Disney package of vapid Phil Collins songs with a numbing script is being touted as a new Broadway musical? "

    ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY says "Impressed with the uncynical warmth and charm of a kid-friendly musical. Tarzan is no more a major new musical than Chaperone is. But I'll take the former's good-natured exuberance over the latter's preening irony any day of the week."

    PETER MARKS of the WASHINGTON POST says "A production with pretty surfaces that bungees unremarkably into thin air."

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "Despite such attractive qualities, the show is repetitious. Despite the expertise, the evening feels amateurish."

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of the ASSOCIATED PRESS says "And while the elaborate production is visually stunning, the show, directed and designed by Bob Crowley, is emotionally and musically lightweight � almost as skimpy as Tarzan's leather loincloth."

    FRANK SCHECK of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER says "It too often plays like a theme park attraction than a real Broadway musical."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    New York Times
    New York Post
    New York Daily News
    USA Today
    Washington Post
    NewsDay
    Associated Press
    The Hollywood Reporter