BWW Reviews: TARZAN Dazzles at the Woodlawn
Disney's Tarzan recently swung into San Antonio's Woodlawn Theatre, and though it closed last weekend, it will surely be talked about by audience members who had the chance to see it. While the musical was Disney's first Broadway flop, Woodlawn's production made the most of the flawed material and brought the familiar and long-loved story of Tarzan to life.
The show faithfully follows the story of the 1999 Disney film of the same name. After his parents are shipwrecked in the jungle and subsequently eaten by a leopard, baby Tarzan is found by an ape, Kala, who is determined to raise the child, despite the misgivings of her husband, Kerchak. Years later, Adult Tarzan comes in contact with British explorers, including the beautiful Jane Porter, and is forced to confront his identity.
While the story's been told for over 100 years (the Disney film is based on the book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs which dates back to 1912), the musical's book, written by David Henry Hwang, does little in terms of character development and fails to expand on the film's screenplay. Hwang borrows some dialogue and moments that work well in the film, but they don't read well on stage. It's astonishing that Hwang is so far off the mark here considering the brilliance of his masterwork, M. Butterfly, but his words here seem more like a first draft and not a polished final product.
The score, featuring music and lyrics by Phil Collins, is equally lackluster. While the songs Collins wrote for the film gave the picture a fun, pop/rock energy, they feel out of place on stage. As for the new songs he's penned specifically for the stage version, well, let's just say that if he wrote songs like these in the 80s, the only Genesis we'd know of today would be in the Bible. There are no showstoppers in the roster of 14 songs, and it's evident that Collins is most accustomed to writing for his own voice and not a company of performers (It's worth noting that Collins sang every song in the film, save for a few lyrics sung by Glenn Close and a couple grunts from Rosie O'Donnell). The tunes all have Collins' pop sound and are all in the same handful of keys and tempos, and the lack of variety causes them to bleed together in an unmemorable fog. Their failure to develop characters or further the plot doesn't help matters.
Though the material is riddled with flaws, director Greg Hinojosa has managed to use it as a vehicle to showcase the incredible talents of his cast and creative team. Hinojosa's vision of Tarzan's world is beautiful, mysterious, and at times dangerous. His imaginative, vibrant interpretation of the jungle nearly masks the problems in the writing and score. Matt Smith's lighting is warm and lush, and the costumes by Rose Kennedy are a beautiful mix of realistic, Victorian era pieces (Jane's dresses are particularly stunning), and more creative, fanciful concoctions. The costumes worn by the apes are particularly non-realistic but wonderfully effective. The choreography by Eric B. Mota is also of note. Equally balletic and athletic, Mota's choreography features quite a bit of aerial dance which is truly exquisite and beautifully executed by the fearless cast.
But like most Woodlawn productions, it's the set design that steals the show. Woodlawn's resident set designers Kurt Wehner and Benjamin Grabill have a reputation for building gigantic sets that are feasts for the eyes, and their set for Tarzan may be their biggest and best yet. The detailed web of caves, caverns, vines, and jungle plants would be enough to wow the audience, but the working waterfalls on either side of the stage give the set an extra element that makes it even more magical.
The cast assembled for Tarzan is also impressive. Like most Woodlawn shows, the ensemble is packed with strong singers and dancers, and though I've already mentioned their fearlessness regarding the aerial stunts and choreography, it's worth repeating again. Jack Dullnig gives a notable performance as Young Tarzan. His cuteness and charm is put to good use here, but that's far from what makes Dullnig special. Considering the stunts he executes as Young Tarzan, it's clear that Dullnig is a young performer who is game for anything, and that alone will take him far.
As Tarzan's best friend Terk, Michael J. Gonzalez gives the role tons of personality. One wishes that the material gave him more opportunities to showcase his talents, particularly when it comes to comic relief. As Kala, Linda Sanchez proves to have a voice that seems tailor made for a pop score, though the material doesn't give her much to do other than be a protective mother. Kurt Wehner is a stand-out as Kala's other half, Kerchak. It's interesting to see the friendly, likeable Wehner as the cantankerous father of Tarzan, but it's a role he performs well. Once again, though, it would be nice if the material would give Kerchak more to do.
The underutilization of certain characters continues on with the leads. Michael Benson gives the villainous character of Clayton all that he can, and he succeeds at creating a character who is dangerous and slimy. Unfortunately, Hwang's book turns one of the most underrated Disney villains into no more than a melodramatic trope. If there were train tracks somewhere in the jungle, Clayton would tie Jane to them. If Disney plans to revise Tarzan (a bright idea considering how revisions to subsequent productions of The Little Mermaid, Tarzan's fellow Broadway flop, have been well received), there are plenty of revisions to be made around Clayton. Disney may want to introduce Clayton somewhere in act one, integrate him more into the story, and give him a song or two. Honestly, any main character in a musical should sing. If they don't, they probably aren't necessary at all.
As Adult Tarzan, Mark Wilson has the right look and voice for the role. His wobbly walk is a smart choice considering a man raised by apes probably wouldn't be too steady on his feet. The problem is that Tarzan is a supporting character in his own show. We don't meet Adult Tarzan until the last 15 minutes of the first act, he never gets a stand-out song, and the book and score fail to flesh out his character arc or his relationship with Jane. It's remarkable that Wilson leaves an impression at all when given the blandest male lead Disney has ever put on stage.
The only character that the material serves well (and I'm being generous there as she still needs a better song) is Jane. With her quirkiness and constant state of befuddlement, Jane may be the only interesting character in the show, and it's a character that Mia Migliaccio pulls off well. Migliaccio has the voice and the looks to play the more traditional Disney heroines like Belle and Ariel, but seeing her play a goofier one is a tremendous amount of fun.
While Tarzan offers writing problems galore, Woodlawn Theatre's production of it was one of the most eye-catching spectacles of the theater season. Production values like this are unmatched in San Antonio.
TARZAN closed on Sunday, July 20th, 2014. For more information on the Woodlawn Theatre, please visit www.woodlawntheatre.org