Heard it through the grapevine: You'll go ape over Muny's 'Tarzan'

For the News-DemocratJune 27, 2014 

As a family of four was exiting their seats at The Muny, the mother asked her two sons if they liked "Tarzan." The youngest boy said: "I didn't like it, I loved it!"

So, there you go.

Here's my take. With emphasis on the "Wow" factor, the musical "Tarzan" made its Muny debut Wednesday. When the giant jungle gym set was revealed, the audience applauded.

For the staging of this adaptation of Disney's 1999 animated film, multi-talented director John Tartaglia ("Shrek") and his team tried to achieve a multisensory experience as much as possible.

The production values are dazzling, with scenic designer Timothy R. Mackabee maximizing use of the stage's massive turntable. The innovative costumes by Leon Dobkowski allow the gorillas to move like animals but perform musical theater.

As busy as the activities can get, however, at its core, "Tarzan" projects plenty of heart and emotion. Its emphasis on family, no matter how its unit is created, is touching. It will resonate with the families in attendance.

For those unfamiliar with Edgar Rice Burrough's fictional character published 100 years ago in "Tarzan the Ape-Man," an infant born to British aristocracy is raised by apes following the deaths of his parents, who had become shipwrecked in Africa.

The musical follows the Disney movie, with a few slight changes, introducing a naturalist, Jane Porter, and her professor father to Tarzan and his world. Their guide Clayton is the villain, wishing to capture gorillas to sell to zoos stateside.

When something new grabs our attention, there are both strong and weak points to the experience. Those of us unfamiliar with the 2006 Broadway musical are eager to see something new, but there is the need to get up to speed fast regarding what's happening with something so unfamiliar. At times, the plot is bogged down by clumsy dialogue. But the good thing is the cast is of such caliber that they keep us focused.

Strip away all the extras, and you discover an ensemble who excels at creating multidimensional characters.

We start at Tarzan's infancy, when he's rescued by Kala, and she mothers him despite her husband Kerchak's objections. When Tarzan is a cute little tyke, he fashions a spear to help pick fruit, and Kerchak takes that as a sign the human will one day harm the apes.

Tarzan despairs in a gut-wrenching song, "I Need to Know," and the adorable Spencer Jones had the audience's rapt attention as the confused young lad. Tarzan re-appears as a tall, handsome, muscular grown-up guy in a loincloth, and Nicholas Rodriguez is one hunky specimen.

He brings out Tarzan's courage and loyalty, and his physicality is remarkable as he mimics animal movements, then shifts as he becomes more civilized under Jane's tutelage. This is not your father's Johnny Weissmuller or your grandfather's Buster Crabbe.

Kate Rockwell is splendid as Jane, bringing out much-needed humor in the fish-out-of-water situations. Kate Thompson, as Kala, is a stronger actress than singer. I expected the Oscar-winning song "You'll Be in My Heart" would be a grander rendition. Quentin Earl Darrington is a solid Kerchak, and Gregory Haney provides comic relief as Terk. Young Terk, Nathaniel Mahone, is another charmer.

Nearly all the leads are making their Muny debuts, with the exception of hometown icon Ken Page, who plays Porter. I could listen to him read the phone book, for his rich speaking voice is in hallowed James Earl Jones territory.

Michael James Reed, another local favorite, takes his "boos" in stride at the curtain call, for Clayton is the guy you love to hate.

The music is a mixed bag. Phil Collins wrote nine new songs in addition to the five that he wrote for the film, and the lyrics are not very special. The score, especially with his percussion background, fares better. The UMSL drum ensemble, led by Matt Henry, sounded terrific when the songs featured African rhythms.

The much longer second act is where the emotions swell, and you'd have to be a cynic to not be carried away by the heartfelt production.

And anytime Tarzan swings to the stage with aerial lines, it's quite a visual treat. At least they put something in for the moms.

What: "Tarzan"

When: 8:15 p.m. through July 2

Where: The Muny Opera in Forest Park

Tickets: www.muny.org, at Muny box office or MetroTix 314-534-1111

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