The stage adaptation of the smash 1999 Disney animated feature Tarzan has finally arrived in Los Angeles eight years after its Broadway debut, and if the intimate staging now playing at North Hollywood’s El Portal doesn’t do quite everything right, it makes for a highly entertaining show for audiences five and up.
The story is the same one Edgar Rice Burroughs first told in his now 100-year-old novel, the basis for a dozen Johnny Weissmuller movies and who knows how many other adaptations, including Disney’s, which featured Phil Collins’ Oscar-winning #1 hit “You’ll Be In My Heart.”
Tarzan: The Musical adds ten more Collins tunes to the movie’s five, sticking closely to the movie plotline with only a few minor changes, perhaps the biggest being is that Collins’ songs actually get sung by the characters themselves this time round.
You’ve surely heard the tale before, one which begins with gorilla mom Kala (Katherine Washington at the El Portal) grieving the loss of her infant son, only to discover a newly orphaned human babe, whom she names Tarzan and loves as if he were her own. (“You’ll Be In My Heart”) Cute and spunky as young Tarzan is (William Spangler at the performance reviewed), he fails to earn the paternal love of Kala’s mate Kerchak (Dedrick A. Bonner), who worries that the Homo sapiens child will grow up to be the kind of killer Kerchak and his tribe know all too well.
Fortunately for Tarzan, the youngster is soon befriended by sassy ape Terk (Tevin Kyrell). (“Who Better Than Me”) Less fortuitous is Kerchak’s discovery that Tarzan has confectioned a spear, and though its stated purpose is to grab fruit from a tree, the gorilla leader sees only the spear’s potential as a weapon, and banishes Tarzan from the tribe, forcing Kala to choose between husband and son. (Fortunately for Tarzan, she picks the latter.)
The years pass and Tarzan (Tyler Scherer now) grows to hunky, vine-swinging adulthood with the ever-faithful Terk still by his side. (“Son Of Man”)
It is this dreadlocked, muscular specimen of red-blooded manliness whom pretty young English naturalist Jane Porter (Kristin Towers-Rowles) first lays eyes (and eventually hands) on while searching the African jungle for flora and fauna, never suspecting to find someone “Like No Man I’ve Ever Seen.”
You know the rest, or you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past hundred years.
Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang’s book (based on both Burroughs’ novel and the Disney movie screenplay) is the same clever blend of children’s and grown-up humor that has worked so well in one animated Disney feature after another, and once it’s “Me Tarzan, You Jane” time, the double entendres fly fast and furious, making this Tarzan every bit the adult treat as it is for the kids. (One tuneful Phil Collins song after another help too.)
Helming this latest Kelrik Productions (ad)venture are director Erik Austin and musical director Joshua Eli Kranz, both doing topnotch work in their respective roles.
Austin’s gorgeous scenic design makes an awesome first impression as you enter the intimate Monroe Forum, which has been transformed into a mini Technicolor jungle complemented by Lester Wilson’s ingenious properties. Kathleen Forster’s costumes both human and animal prove a visual treat as well, particularly as lit ever-so vividly by Craig Batory.
Less impressive are the show’s muted prerecorded backup tracks, whose lowered volume does allowed non-amped voice to be heard but doesn’t do justice to a great big pop Broadway score that deserves to be miked rather than “unplugged.”
Fortunately, a number of cast members, Towers-Rowles and Bonner highest on the list, do manage to sing out quite splendidly even without the benefit of mikes.
Since her 2010-11 Scenie win as Breakthrough Musical Theater Performer Of The Year, Towers-Rowles has continued to impress in show after show, and her Jane is about as perfect as performances get, from her blend of English charm, spunk, and pluck, to her gorgeous pop vocals, to her serious acting chops.
Jane or no Jane, there can be no Tarzan without just the right leading man, and if Scherer may strain to reach the highest belty notes, he is considerably stronger in ballad mode. More importantly, the L.A. newcomer has a blend of leading man looks and action hero physique few musical theater performers can match and he acts the part with such sincerity and heart that we believe. Yes, we believe.
Washington, too, makes us believe in Kala’s maternal love and devotion, her performance adding up to the most noteworthy work to date from one of our city’s emerging talents. Bonner is macho perfection as Kerchak, and sings the part with great big Audrey II pipes. As for Kyrell’s Terk, he’s the irrepressible G.B.F. any Tarzan would be proud to call buddy in one of the most irresistible performances you’re likely to see any time soon.
13-year-old Spangler couldn’t be more boyishly winning as Young Tarzan, nor could Robert Towers (Towers-Rowles’ real-life dad) be a more delightfully paternal Professor Porter, aka Jane’s Papa. A deliciously dastardly Dylan F. Thomas and (at the performance reviewed) a cute-as-a-button Jotapé Lockwood* are the next best thing to Captain Hook and Smee as the villainous Clayton and sidekick Snipes.
Ensemble members Paige Cerchiara, Darius Elmore, La’Raia Gribble, Joi Marchetti, Charles Martinez, and Web Jerome merit applause for their execution of choreographer Samantha Marie’s inventive chore-ape-ography. Indeed all actors playing simians deserve cheers for their authentic monkey business. (Nature Channel homework has clearly been done.)
If only Kelrik had made a point of recommending Tarzan: The Musical for audiences five and up, and perhaps even placed an outright age restriction on ticket sales. This is, after all a two-hour-long Broadway musical with enough adult subject matter to make it inappropriate for preschoolers unlikely to sit still for two acts, each nearly an hour long, or refrain from asking “Why Mommy?” at every over-their-heads turn. Any adult hoping to enjoy Tarzan: The Musical to its fullest is cautioned to lower expectations accordingly.
Fortunately, for those who can manage to control any W.C. Fields-worthy exasperation they might be feeling as Tarzan: The Musical reaches its dramatic, emotional climax, this Los Angeles premiere makes for a generally fine small-stage introduction to the many pleasures Disney’s Ape Man has to offer on the musical theater stage.
*The producers are reminded that Actors’ Equity Association’s Los Angeles 99-Seat Theatre Plan agreement requires an announcement to be posted prominently at the theater entrance and either a pre-show announcement or program insert in the case of a cast change. Lockwood performed the role usually played by another actor without anyone in the audience being made aware of the change.
Monroe Forum at El Portal, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
April 27, 2014