BWW Review: TARZAN: THE STAGE MUSICAL at Atlanta Lyric Theatre

BWW Review: TARZAN:  THE STAGE MUSICAL at Atlanta Lyric Theatre
Photo by Cayce Calloway

When Tarzan swung into Atlanta Lyric Theatre on Friday evening, it carried a lot of heavy baggage with it. At its opening on Broadway in 2006, the seldom-produced tuner, with songs by Phil Collins and a book by David Henry Hwang, was decidedly unpopular with the critics. The New York Times called it "restless," "fidgety," and "a giant green blob with music." New York Magazine said, "You are going to be bored." I could go on, but why bother? You get the picture. Neither the musical nor the production was favored, and, unsurprisingly, the musical lasted only 486 performances on Broadway, which, in the world of the Disney musical, is like dying while you're still a tadpole. But Robert Adams' production of Tarzan, owing much debt to the extraordinary lighting design by Mary Parker, the efficient scenic design by Daniel Pattillo, and the vigor of the acrobatic cast, sheds all of that baggage and finds a way to soar.

BWW Review: TARZAN:  THE STAGE MUSICAL at Atlanta Lyric Theatre
Photo by Cayce Calloway

The movical, based on the popular 1999 Disney film of the same name, tells the story of Tarzan (Stanley Allyn Owen), an orphan raised by gorillas. When his adoptive mother, Kala (Leslie Bellair), brings the infant Tarzan into the family, her husband, Kerchak (Marcus Hopkins-Turner), the leader of the gorillas, is fearful that Tarzan will endanger the family, but Tarzan, as he grows to manhood, is a beloved member of the group and manages to maintain connectedness with the group even when Kerchak relocates him to another part of the jungle. Emotional conflict arises for Tarzan when he meets Jane (Alison Brannon Wilhoit), a beautiful member of a scientific expedition, who asks the wild man to return to England with her.

Entering Atlanta Lyric, the sounds of the jungle permeate the space, encouraging the audience to become a part of Tarzan's world, and as the lights go down, large pieces of white cloth, representing Tarzan's parents' doomed ship, shake back and forth behind a scrim as magnificent lighting and sound effects effectively tell the story of the terror of the shipwreck that ultimately makes Tarzan's human family the vulnerable prey of a hungry leopard. This opening scene is a lovely hors d'oeuvre to what will become one of the finest elements of the Atlanta Lyric production: the lighting design. Mary Parker floods the stage in lush green light, working in wonderful concert with Daniel Pattillo's efficient set, a seemingly simple series of mounds and slides of thick jungle vegetation, to create a true jungle on stage. Beyond the governing design that places the audience squarely in the world that the success of the entire production rests on, Parker uses light in other spectacular ways. Think human plants under a blacklight swirling around as Jane is introduced to the magic of the jungle or stars twinkling well beyond the confines of the stage space, giving the impression that love, like the stars, knows no bounds. In a story that is noticeably absent of Disney magic, Parker and Pattillo adroitly make their own.

BWW Review: TARZAN:  THE STAGE MUSICAL at Atlanta Lyric Theatre
Photo By Cayce Calloway

Atlanta Lyric's cast is up to the special challenges of telling this story. The ensemble of apes, as they swing upside down from bamboo jungle-gyms and perform dazzling acrobatic sequences, beautifully create the symphonic chaos of the jungle. Tarzan and Jane glide through the sky in grand fashion on a series of ropes that, with only a few minor exceptions (mostly having to do with awkward harness issues and a tad bit of overuse), certainly create the trademark Tarzan swing that is the quintessential Tarzan image. The cast, beyond their impressive acrobatic feats, also does a fine job of telling the story. Alison Brannon Wilhoit is extremely impressive and likable in her turn as Jane, and Stanley Allyn Owen's Tarzan is sturdy and well-sung. I wish I felt a little bit more of his yearning for Jane, but setting aside that small inadequacy in his narrative arc, he does well, and his adept physicality allows us to feel both his man and his ape. Leslie Bellair, Marcus Hopkins-Turner, and Commodore Primous, playing Tarzan's ape family, all deliver performances that are worthy of much praise. All three somehow blend the human essence of the characters with the physicality of the apes in a way that maximizes emotional buy-in from the audience.

Tarzan is a fine addition to Atlanta Lyric Theatre's ever-growing catalogue of fun and engaging musical theatre productions. And the technical difficulty that this show brings with it makes it unlikely that you'll have too many chances to see it in other venues. But why would you wait for that anyways? This production is delightful, so fly to the theater and see it before it swings out.

Tarzan runs through June 24 at the Atlanta Lyric Theatre.

For tickets and info, visit www.atlantalyrictheatre.com



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