BWW Reviews: Pearland Thatre Guild's TARZAN is Wholly Entertaining
The stage musical is a retelling of the popular 1999 hit Disney film. After surviving a shipwreck, a young boy is orphaned in the African Congo when a leopard kills his parents. Kala, a female gorilla that recently lost her own baby, discovers the crying infant, whom she names Tarzan. She adopts and raises the boy as one of her own despite the disapproval of Kerchak, the leader of the gorilla tribe. Tarzan constantly struggles to earn Kerchak's approval, and as a grown man encounters strangers like himself for the first time. The show utilizes all of Phil Collins' hit songs from the film, incorporates a few new ones, and features a book written by David Henry Hwang (CHINGLISH, Disney's AIDA, M. BUTTERFLY).
With the limitations of a respectable community theater budget, Nathan C. Hand has stripped away the layers of fanciful visual trickery, preserving and presenting the relational center of the production. He emphasizes the universal quests for belonging and acceptance that drives the plot forward in TARZAN. He develops the relationships between each of the major characters, giving the show a generously relatable and touching heart. Sadly, the book is David Henry Hwang at his weakest. It's not really thought provoking or deep. It's not as clever as CHINGLISH. It's not as sophisticated as AIDA. It exists as entertainment for entertainment's sake. But, Nathan C. Hand still finds a way to have the finale resonate within us, making even my eyes slightly mist over. Also, he deftly utilizes the space and his set to provide some nice theatrical illusions, especially in the reveal of adult Tarzan (which earned cheers from the audience I saw the production with).Nathan C. Hand's cast is committed to their roles and seems to have a lot of fun bringing their characters to life. As Tarzan, Kiefer Slaton charms the audience with his smooth tenor voice, especially on "Strangers Like Me," and his relatable portrayal of Tarzan's struggle to fit in and find acceptance. Haley Landers' Jane Potter is sweet, kind, and imbued with a naivety that earns some hearty chuckles. Stephanie Politte's Kala is wonderfully nurturing. Her earthy alto voice sounds great on the score, giving it some notable richness and depth. The stubborn and stoic Kerchak is given interesting life by Daniel Ewetuya. Renee Hinojosa's Terk is charismatic, heartwarming, and hilarious. Her powerful alto instrument and well-placed belt offer some of the evening's best vocals and her energy and presence on stage is always fantastic and appreciated. Renee Hinojosa's soulful performances of "Son Of Man" and "Trashin' the Camp" standout as the most fascinating moments of the musical.
The remainder of the cast does well with their assigned roles as well. Neil Kirkpatrick's Professor Porter is amiable. Nathan C. Hand's Mr. Clayton is villainous without being imposing or scary. Andrew Sackett's Young Tarzan and Duke Bartholomae's Young Terk are lively and cute. The large ensemble spends a lot of time enacting ape-like mannerisms and handles that task well. Daniel Ewetuya does the best job, making his hunched over Gorilla stance appear natural.
TARZAN is not a perfect musical though. Many of David Henry Hwang's book scenes seem to only exist to get the cast and audience from one song to the next. This leaves the characters grossly underdeveloped (especially in the way that Mr. Clayton is lacking menace) and cheapens the emotional connection the audience has with them. Phil Collins' new songs for the score are not memorable; for example, Jane's "Waiting For This Moment" is a tedious prattle number with uninteresting word play in Latin.