BWW Reviews: Disney's TARZAN Family Entertainment Onstage at the El Portal
Tarzan The Stage Musical/book by David Henry Hwang/based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' story "Tarzan of the Apes" and the Disney film/music and lyrics by Phil Collins/directed by Erik Austin/El Portal, Monroe Forum Theatre/through May 18
The legendary Tarzan is and always has been a unique hero of young and old. Edgar Rice Burroughs saw to that when he wrote his story, now a classic in children's literature. There were the films of the 30s/40s with Johnny Weissmuller. Then in 1984 came the beautiful, heartfelt Greystoke with Christopher Lambert, followed by the Disney animated film in 1999. Remaining loyal to this Disney film and tracing the story back to the very beginning is possibly a curse of the stage musical. What works deliriously well in an animated film cannot always be duplicated frame by frame on the stage. Nevertheless, the new Kelrik Production works wonders by reinventing the original Broadway show on the tiny stage of the Monroe Theatre at the El Portal in NoHo, with a truly amazing cast, now through May 18.
When I point to an obvious flaw of Tarzan The Stage Musical, it is that the first half hour is a total re-enactment of the back story: how the tiny baby, who became our hero, was left in the jungle and found by apes, who nurtured him to manhood. Despite the sweetness of the whole unconventional parental/child thing - with apes and human together - and some terrific moves by the actors playing the gorillas, there is too much of this, at least for my taste, things start to drag and the story does not really pique interest until Jane (Kristin Towers-Rowles) enters the picture. A naturalist, she along with her father Professor Porter (Robert Towers) is seeking to study the gorillas in their natural habitat, and by accident encounters Tarzan (Tyler Scherer) and attempts to civilize him. Of course, she falls in love with him along the way. The story has a somewhat sad ending as Tarzan's ape father Kerchak (Dedrick A. Bonner) is killed by one of the Professor's envious crew members (Dylan F. Thomas), and the question remains: can Tarzan survive outside the jungle in the civilized world if he goes to England with Jane...or can Jane survive primitive life if she stays with Tarzan? Can the two worlds live together in real harmony?
Director Erik Austin has done an incredible job in reducing the size of the show and making it more accessible to audiences. And of course his dream cast are perfection. Towers-Rowles, as always, give a remarkable performance as Jane, digging into her vulnerable side and presenting a realistic portrait of the woman who tamed and educated Tarzan. Scherer is physically adept at bounding around the small space - there is little room for flying here - and nails the man's utter confusion as to who he truly is. Towers makes a perfectly precise Porter. Supporting ensemble members Katherine Washington as Kala, Tarzan's ape mother, Tevin Kyrell as Terk, so terribly funny as the bumbling ape who tries to adapt him to jungle living, and Bonner as Kerchak are all wonderful. Washington is particular is lovely to watch and her maternal devotion is precious. Thomas is appropriately villainous as Clayton and Antonio Ardolino as his fidgeting sidekick Snipes, like Snee with Captain Hook in Peter Pan, steals every moment he's onstage without uttering a word. Praise to the entire ensemble who do justice to Samantha Marie's choreography. She and they make the jungle come to life, especially in the prolonged opening segments. Kudos as well to Kameron Kotraba as Young Tarzan (sharing the role with William Spanger).
Director Austin has worked miracles with designing and fitting a jungle set into the tiny space and Kathleen Forster's costumes are fine, but Debi Hernandez needs to work some more on Tarzan's wig, which looks too much like ... a badly braided wig. Joshua Eli Kranz lends his usual expertise as musical director. Speaking of music, Phil Collins has written some nice ballads, particularly "Two Worlds" and the lovely "You'll Be In My Heart". David Henry Hwang's dialogue is fine; I just want some pruning on Act I, perhaps converting the entire show into one act.
In spite of some drawbacks, this Tarzan is definitely worth seeing for its dynamite cast and excellent execution on the Monroe Forum stage.