Tarzan on Broadway
Review by Diana, SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diasala, Kimba, Anndi
Director: Bob Crowley
Writer: Adapted from the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Book/Script: David Henry Hwang
Scenery & Costumes: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Natasha Katz
Aerial Design: Pichón Baldinu
Choreography: Meryl Tankard
Music Arrangements: Paul Boakev
Starring: Josh Strickland, Jen Gambatese, Merle Dandridge, Chester Gregory II, Tim Jerome, Donnie Keshawarz, Daniel Manche, Alex Rutherford, Shuler Hensley
Rating: Lambda Shuttle — packs 'em in, fails to deliver without password
Alas, the book and staging fell flat. Even if you have great actors, great singers, wonderful lighting, and excellent and clever opening scenes, you still don't have a musical if there is no story. As for the acrobatics, we know of children under the age of 7 who could all do better and maybe they should have hired them to play juvenile apes instead of adults who seemed to be coached to act like chimpanzees rather than gorillas.
It's not to say the individual performances weren't good. The aforementioned American Idol hopeful, Josh Strickland, was cast as the adult Tarzan. Clad in a dredlocked wig and Speedos to back-up his loincloth, he tumbled, flipped, swung, sung, emoted, and walked and knuckled around like a gorilla really admirably. His younger self was played by Daniel Manche in the performance we saw (alternating with Alex Rutherford), who was equally charming in the role. Best friend Terk, played by Chester Gregory, made a meal out of a supporting part; he garnered the most applause for his solo "scat" in Trashin' the Camp, even though he was assigned some of the stupider lines of the show. The humans, played by Gambatese (Jane), Tim Jerome (Professor Porter), and Donnie Kershawarz (Clayton), did decent-to-admirable jobs too, as did the grayback Kerchak, played by the Tony Award-winning Shuler Hensley.
Some reviewers whined that Josh Strickland was too "wiry" to be Tarzan; they are worshipping the muscle-bound physique of Johnny Weismuller, maybe. But we doubt there were many steroids in the jungle. We found the thin man with no body fat to be completely convincing, so bah to them. We admired that Jane Porter came across as a little chubby, as that's not unrealistic either for a Victorian lass with a professor for a father. Both were cute and had great voices.
There were great voices on that stage which sang beautifully, even if you aren't a fan of vintage catchy, poppy Phil Collins-authored numbers. The music's bubbliness didn't bother us as much as the weird sound system (which sounded a tiny bit tinny?) with the disembodied off-stage voices which would swell in when the singers were doing their thing on-stage. It made us wondered if the actors were lip-synching? As for dancing, there really wasn't any, not even if you count Tarzan and Jane trying to do ballroom steps. The choreographer (who is new to Broadway productions, apparently) might have told them where and when to be, but as for the actions, it seems the actors just came up with them themselves, and they really weren't adequate.
Even the aerial choreography showed the same not-enough-direction issues. True, the swinging and bouncing were carefully timed so that no one was in danger of mid-air collision, and the harnesses did look secure. Tarzan, Terk, and a lunar moth took turns hanging via a harness rig which tracked directly above the audience. Terk spent most of his aerial time upsidedown (and singing), while the moth did "interpretive dance" type of movements. The moth costume, by the way, was outstanding, in that with the movements of the actress, the wings flapped slowly and convincingly as she twisted and turned and flipped.
The costuming was good, overall ... except for the gorillas. The costumes appeared to be made of rubberized strips which made the actors look more like primal Village People men wearing long, circa-1970s arm fringe, hairy chaps, and halter/tanktops. Isn't gorilla hair short? Were they thinking black orangutans, maybe? Of the gorilla costumes, only Kerchak the grayback and Terk were convincing, as the rubbery strands covered more of their bodies. Kala, played by Merle Dandridge, was completely unconvincing either as a costume or as a character. Perhaps she was injured, but she walked upright like Aida, rather than a gorilla.
In fact, the set appeared to be made of the same rubberized strips the gorilla costumes were made from, only longer and in slight varigations of green, from floor to the top of the view. True, it was visually stunning when you first saw it ... but it stayed and stayed. Rather than making you feel like you were in a jungle, you felt like you were in a padded box for most of the production. Like many things in this production, it just went on for too long.
The only exceptions were three scenes: when Tarzan took the humans to meet his family, where the strips were dangled across the depth of the stage so that you could see and not-see the gorillas in the forest/jungle; then the scene following when Tarzan took Jane above the trees to see the moon; and one scene where a waterfall cascaded down (white strips of diaphanous cloth) then pooled into a receded part of the stage to form a watering hole as Kerchak prepared to abandon Kala's adopted son.
Admittedly, even these scenes were excellent mostly due to Natasha Katz's superlative lighting design, but even the really lovely starry fireflies were somewhat over-used. The production did have state of the art equipment, black lights galore (imagine the vacuuming to keep the dust off all that rubber!), animated cells, etc. All the lighting really was beautiful, from the watery shipwreck to the rising moon over the African coast.
In fact, there seemed to be a decision made to be more spare in other aspects of the production and let the lights define most of the scenery and mood. As the audience filed into the auditorium, a pair of scrims were used to depict the soon-to-be-shipwrecked vessel, which was rocked rhymically to appear to creak and pitch and roll. It was rather convincing (making one of us kind of seasick), and the captain's logbook entries were projected on the scrim as well a really good way to get everyone into the mood.
But alas, then the gorillas came out to cavort, and despite their aerial antics, they seemed solidly attached to the bottom of the stage, and the production didn't really soar again. No matter how the stage was used after, we felt cheated, as viewers.
We don't think this production is a no-hoper, but it does need a tremendous about of revision on the book itself. David Henry Hwang might be well known, but it seems like he's well-known for the wrong reasons. Reading his credentials is a bit like reading a list of failed musicals; productions which should have been home-runs but ended up being swings-and-misses. Maybe that's unfair since it takes many elements to succeed or to fail, but the story was simply choppy and badly done. We were very sad about that. One scene followed another in a perfunctory manner, which prompted one of us to comment that this is a production not a musical.
The choreography and costuming also needs to be re-done for the gorillas. Surely, who doesn't know that these big creatures move in distinctive ways and lhave a distinctive look? They do not look like wild jungle-men (they look like they should have worn a bone in their hair!) nor move like hyperactive, attention-deficit suffering pre-schoolers. Someone should have studied how the creatures move; it's not hard to do. Hey, Disney animators used to be famous for studying how animals move! And the leopard (lifted directly from the Lion King stageshow) did move like a cat, after all, so someone did do their homework. The battle scene between Tarzan and the leopard was choreographed really well and made excellent use of the aerial wires, so we know that better staging and choreography is possible.
It was a very physical show, and the energy never lagged, which is a good thing. We admired the physical endurance Strickland must have, and we wondered how he does this eight times a week?? He looks good in a loincloth, too. And the graphic poster is beautiful, as was the huge banner on the side of a Times Square building that looked to be 20 stories tall.
But all in all and alas, the show might not have been worth the $125 apiece we paid for back-orchestra seats ... but it was as great deal of fun and we did enjoy the show and did find things to admire; we hear it cost $15 million to put onto Broadway. Not surprising, given even how much stage construction and re-enforcement of ceilings and such must've been necessary. And given that much investment and the full house and Disney's marketing power, we are counting on them making the much-needed fixes to make this a great show, instead of one that makes one feel like one must reach to justify one's expense! There were things about the show which really were wonderful, for sure, but it suffered for want of the basics of a well-written story? (And why wasn't it well-written? The animated movie on which this musical is based was great, after all!)
There was so much exhuberant jumping and swinging, we did fear for the safety of some of those aerialists (meaning they didn't make us believe they could really fly ...). Hmn ... did they just spend that $15 million on liability and disability insurance?
Production images from www.broadway.com, www.elperiodico.com, www.telegraph.co.uk, www.washingtonpost.com
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