by Beki Pineda
TARZAN – Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins; Book by David Henry Hwang; Directed by Piper Lindsay Arpan. Produced by Candlelight Dinner Playhouse (4747 Marketplace, Johnstown) through August 25. Tickets available at 970-744-3747 or coloradocandlelight.com.
Candlelight has literally gone out on a limb to add TARZAN to this season. It is a swinging musical in the physical sense, calling on great strength and dexterity from its cast. But it was also one of the more poorly received of the Disney musicals, playing only sixteen months on Broadway as compared to the two earlier Disney Theatrical Productions. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, their first venture into live theatre, opened in 1994 and played until 2007, a total of over 5000 performances. The second and by far the most successful (and deservedly so) Broadway show is LION KING which opened in 1997 and is still playing. It must have been a disappointment to the powers that be at Disney that TARZAN did not echo these earlier successes. LITTLE MERMAID played for two years while ALADDIN is in its fifth year with no end in sight and FROZEN opened last year and is still playing strong. Other Disney musicals that have had strong regional theatre productions but never made it to Broadway include THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (on Candlelight’s calendar for this fall), PINOCCHIO which only played in London, and HERCULES which has a Central Park performance scheduled this summer for one week. So, yes, this was a risk for Candlelight.
It is easy to say that this excellent cast made the most of the script and music they were given. Their enthusiastic acceptance of their inner apes was fun to watch. The humans fared well as well with Katie Jackson and Barret Harper leading the bunch. They were having fun on stage, whether swinging from the multiple vines, climbing on the rocks, nestled in their little ape nests or roaming through the jungle being a bad guy. My experience has been that there are musicals that sometime seem to engage the cast a little more than they do the audience. Like GODSPELL, for instance. Everyone I know who has ever appeared in GODSPELL loves that show. But as an audience member, it does nothing for me. I think TARZAN might be a little like that. The cast enjoys singing the music and acting out the story a little more than the audience enjoys watching it.
I do not mean this as a criticism of this cast. While there are a couple of lovely songs in the score, most of the music, while advancing the story, didn’t thrill. “You’ll be in My Heart” is a killer song and was wonderfully performed by Kala, Tarzan’s ape mother, as played by Harmony Livingston. The love song “For The First Time” between Jane and Tarzan was moving. The dance breaks performed by the Apes were cleverly choreographed using a sort of STOMP style and brought the stage to life. So while you’ll likely leave the theatre trying to emulate the Tarzan cry – a la Carol Burnett – you likely will not be humming the music.
The use of projections and music made the opening shipwreck a potent way to start the show. The death of Tarzan’s parents and of Kala’s baby cub by animal villain Leopard (played by Zachary Bane) following close at hand create a dark beginning to an otherwise lighter show. From there it goes into Tarzan’s young life as an outsider in the Ape family, his loving relationship with his mother, and his growth into the adult Tarzan. hen the humans arrive and the fun begins. Jane, a naturalist, is travelling with her father (Kent Sugg) who is trying to prove his theory that apes band together in families. They are guided into the jungle by Clayton (David Wygant) whose ulterior motive is to capture one or two apes to sell to a circus or zoo. Hwang wisely gave Jane and Tarzan enough scenes together to allow the slow development of their bond and, of course, they fall in love – she proclaiming he was “Like No Man I’ve Seen” and Tarzan expressing his admiration because she was “Different.” The conflict arises between humans and apes, causing Tarzan to have to decide whether to return to civilization with Jane or stay in the wild with his family.
Katie Jackson makes a sparkling Jane who spends half the show unembarrassedly walking around in her bloomers in absolute wonder at the naturalist’s garden she is exploring. She revels in her new relationship with the half man/half ape – first as a scientific experiment and secondly as a newfound man-woman relationship. Barret Harper brings curiosity and delight to his Tarzan portraying love for his tribe, adoration for his mother, wonder at this new and amazing creature who showed up in his corner of the jungle, and masculinity in dealing with the dangers that confront those he loves. He gets to do a lot of the swinging and makes one spectacular entrance that you won’t forget. He finds the humor in Tarzan’s explorations and amps up the electricity when he discovers that he and Jane are the same species.
These two are well supported by a band of apes, led by Harmony Livingston’s sweet and loving Kala, Scotty Shaffer as Kerchak who cannot accept Tarzan into his family of apes but will defend him against the humans, and Tim Howard as Terk, Tarzan’s one true friend and the liveliest of the apes. The young Tarzan and Terk are given a brotherly relationship by Tyler Fruhwirth (in his second appearance at Candlelight after playing Les in NEWSIES last summer) and Gabriel Waits with their duet “Who Better Than Me.” Kent Sugg plays a bumbling oblivious father while David Wygant makes short work of Clayton as a villain. The ensemble of apes, some of whom are on the stage nearly all the time grooming or sleeping or just hanging out, make good work of the vines they are given to swing on and the rocks they are given to climb. Knowing how set pieces generally arrive only after the bulk of rehearsals are finished, they have used their time well to learn how to maneuver on this complicated set. There were just a few times when the apes were a little more of a distraction that adding to the scene. The swinging could have been more meaningful than aimless.
The jungle set designed by Mike Grittner and built by Dave MacEachen and his crew was impressive and filled the bill for providing unusual playing spaces. Believable ape costumes and loin clothes were created by Liz Hoover and her crew. Stylized make up added to the effect. The lighting design by Vance MacKenzie was especially useful for creating the mood and the mystery of the jungle both at twilight and sunlight.
There will always be a built in audience for a Disney show and for anything to do with Tarzan. Those of us of a certain age remember the early movies, millennials remember GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE and relate him to Tarzan, and the younger members of the audience want to know what’s going on with this Ape Man thing. Plus there are those of us who have come to trust that Candlelight will provide an evening of sterling entertainment and a good meal and will go see whatever they decide to present knowing we won’t be disappointed.
A WOW factor of 8!!