Tarzan soars. Not just Tarzan, but virtually the entire cast takes actual flight in 3-D Theatricals’ Southern California Major-Regional Premiere of TARZAN® The Stage Musical based on the Disney Film, a mouthful of a title and one humdinger of a show.
The story is the same one Edgar Rice Burroughs first told in his now 101-year-old novel, the basis for a dozen Johnny Weissmuller movies and countless other adaptations, including Disney’s 1999 animated feature, 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 film’s plotline with only a few changes, perhaps the biggest being 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 (Daebreon Poiema) 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.
Cute and spunky as young Tarzan (Jude Mason) is, however, he fails to earn the paternal love of Kala’s mate Kerchak (Marc Cedric Smith), who worries that the Homo Sapiens child will grow up to be the kind of killer Kerchak and his tribe know all too well.
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.
The years pass and Tarzan (Devin Archer now) grows to hunky, vine-swinging adulthood with the ever-faithful Terk still by his side.
It is this dreadlocked, muscular specimen of red-blooded manliness whom pretty young English naturalist Jane Porter (Katie DeShan) 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, though an overlong second act could stand a fifteen-minute trim.
One tuneful Phil Collins song after another do help speed things along, as does choreographer Linda Love Simmons’ remarkable chore-ape-ography, which has a stageful of simians performing the most authentic—and suprisingly graceful—monkey business you’ve ever seen outside the Nature Channel.
Rufus Bonds, Jr.’s spot-on direction, a bevy of all-around splendid lead and featured performances, and a spectacular original production design contribute enormously to this Tarzan’s magnificence (more about the cast and design team’s work later), but if there’s anything audiences will be Facebooking and Instagramming and Twittering (tweeting?) about, it will be Paul Rubin’s extraordinary flight sequence choreography, so dazzlingly epic it outdoes even Rubin’s aerial feats this past year in Mary Poppins, Carrie: The Musical, Seussical The Musical, and Billy Elliot The Musical.
The flight magic begins in Tarzan’s opening sequence, which has the future ape man’s shipwrecked parents swimming from the depths of the ocean, baby in hand, to the tropical beach where they come ashore, the latter sequence viewed as if from high above in a theatrical trompe-l’œil that must be seen to be believed.
Add to that a brand-spaking-new production design, including Stephen Gifford’s gorgeous, Broadway-caliber sets, Sharell Martin’s supremely imaginative costumes, and Jean-Yves Tessier’s dazzling lighting, and you’ve got a Tarzan that is a jungle feast for the eyes.
As for Tarzan himself, 3-D Theatricals has struck gold in leading man Archer, who not only looks spectacular in a loincloth, he gives Tarzan plenty of heart … and the same gorgeous tenor he brought to Marius in MTW’s recent Les Miz.
Crown City Theatre Company favorite DeShan returns to the big stage as an absolutely delightful Jane, bringing charm and starch and a gorgeous soprano to the role—and some sizzling chemistry with the ape-man of her (or anyone’s) dreams.
Poiema follows Ragtime’s Sarah with yet another Mother Courage, investing Kala with oceans of maternal love and a soprano to rival a certain Audra’s. As for Marc Cedric Smith’s Kerchak, Tarzan’s adoptive dad is not only physically imposing and vocally blessed, he digs deep to reveal a gorilla’s conflicted soul.
Cummings provides delightful comic relief (and sensational vocal chops) in his sass-ational performance as Terk; Jude Mason, SoCal’s go-to child performer, once again commands the stage as Young Tarzan; and Joey D’Auria is paternal perfection as Professor Porter.
Additional topnotch supporting and cameo turns are provided by Brian Abraham as the dastardly Mr. Clayton and Evan Strand as his sidekick Snipes, Brian Whitehill and dance captain Jenna Wright (standing in for Jeanette Dawson) as Tarzan’s ill-fated parents, and Remmie Bourgeois as a Leopard you do not want to tangle with.
As for ensemble members Gary Brintz (who doubles as fight choreographer), Bourgeois, Chelle Denton, Rachel Farr, Du’Ron Fisher, Natalie Iscovich, Bren Thor Johnson, Taj Johnson, Arlondriah Lenyéa, Dominque Alan Petit Frère, Christiana Powell, Tiffany Reid, Justin Matthew Segura, Frankie Silver, Strand, Kim Taylor, Whitehill, and Wright, they may be unrecognizable under all that ape makeup and fake fur, but their multi-talents shine brightly through. (This is one cast that not only sing and dance like bona fide pros, they are absolutely convincing in some physically taxing simian moves.)
The kids (Danielle Barron, Jeremy Barron, Mallory Barron, Jude Dawson, Jillian Dey, and Kingson Higgins) are wonderful too, and Crystal Barron and Kwanza Higgins sweeten up vocals from the orchestra pit. Brandon Burks is male swing.
3-D Theatricals’ 13-piece orchestra (provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective) sounds fabulous under musical director Nick Petrillo’s baton and Julie Ferrin’s first-rate sound design mix.
Additional deserved design credits go to Jeffrey S. Marsh (pyrotechnic design), Cliff & Kat Senior (wig design), Gretchen Morales & Melanie Cavaness (properties design), Denice Paxton (makeup design), and Jonathan Infante (projection design). Yolanda Rowell is wardrobe supervisor.
Nicole Wessel is production stage manager and David Jordan Nestor assistant stage manager. Jene Roach is technical director.
From its thrilling opening sequemce to its dramatic, emotional climax, 3-D Theatricals’ Southern California Major-Regional Premiere of TARZAN® The Stage Musical based on the Disney Film (there’s that mouthful again) is as thrilling as SoCal musical theater gets.
3-D Theatricals, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
July 12, 2105
Photos: Isaac James Creative