BWW Review: TARZAN at PMT Anchored by Strong Performances, Lots of Rope
In terms of Disney stage musicals, there is only one true masterpiece, Beauty and the Beast. On the second tier, you have shows like The Lion King, Aladdin and Mary Poppins, which do interesting and entertaining things with their source material, never fail to please, but are not as definitive as their stage version. Down at the bottom you have well-intentioned messes like The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which PMT presented in a streamlined and improved version earlier this year). In between the "pretty good" and the "needs a rewrite" category is Tarzan, a collaboration between Genesis rocker Phil Collins and acclaimed playwright David Henry Hwang. It's heavy on spectacle and emotion, but light on plot- but, for once, this works to the show's benefit.
Adroitly directed by Colleen Doyno, Tarzan occupies a middle ground between a traditional book musical and a stylized dance-theatre piece of the Julie Taymor sort. What emerges from this jungle stew of influences is something akin to Cirque du Soleil, with the musical's light narrative bolstered by feats of athleticism, stunts, and lots of rope-climbing and rope-swinging. Choreographer Lisa Elliot has done a great job harnessing the growing art form of non-erotic pole dance; anyone who has marveled at the "poles and ropes" performers on variety shows like America's Got Talent will be delighted to see the cast climb, hang, twist, swing and contort from the ropes making up the jungle set... all while singing.
The infant survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of an uncharted African jungle, Tarzan (David Toole) grows up raised by a pack of gorillas as one of their own. His adopted ape mother Kala (Alysha Watson) forever supports her "special" son, much to the displeasure of her mate, silverback chieftain Kerchack (Brady David Patsy). When a British scientific expedition arrives in the jungle, Tarzan is torn between his gorilla family and his human nature, with yearnings amplified by the presence of overeducated and underexperienced scholar Jane Porter (Kathlene Queen).
David Toole, as the famed monkey-man himself, is the obvious standout, acting, singing, dancing, fighting and performing acrobatic feats of strength for over two hours. Having once lost just a few pounds to play a role in my briefs, I can barely imagine the level of exertion and dedication it must take to play a role with a superhero physique and no costume to cover it. (In one of the more bizarre elements of the Disney stage canon, repeated not-too-subtle references are made in the script to Tarzan going visibly commando, though the loincloth protects audience kiddies and conservatives alike.) Toole is essentially playing two different characters- the animalistic but essentially human-like Tarzan among the apes, and the feral Tarzan with a gift for mimicry that Jane discovers in the jungle. Seeing him switch back and forth between these perspectives is a comic highlight of the show.
As Jane, Kathlene Queen makes for an enjoyable Victorian twist on the manic pixie dream girl archetype- colorful, eccentric and not quite as buttoned-up as she initially appears. Queen appears to be having great fun with Jane's tendency to compulsively swear in scientific jargon when surprised. Still, no one onstage is having more fun than Allan Snyder as nutty Professor Porter, a man whose enthusiasm for gorillas and scientific discovery renders him a giggling schoolgirl on more than one occasion. (When the human members of the cast let loose and embrace their animal sides at curtain call, Snyder earned a huge, well-deserved laugh for entering in a variation on the fur toga made iconic by the classic Tarzan films.) Rounding out the human cast is Ryan Patrick Kearney, whose Clayton vacillates between a swaggering buffoon and a deadly poacher. It seems Hwang reimagined the typically-British Clayton as an American expatriate, but has written all his dialogue with the same level of posh Victoriana as the rest of the expedition, and Kearney has the unenviable task of trying to sound believably Yankee while saying things like "What the devil do you mean, old boy?"
But the humans are only half the equation- the gorilla family provides the true emotional core of the show. Brady Patsy may be best known for his ability to get well and truly silly, but his straight-laced, straight-faced Kerchak conceals a deep loyalty and paternal affection under an icy exterior. Alysha Watson's Kala is deeply felt and beautifully, soulfully sung- if Tarzan were a better show, Kala would be one of the definitive examples of a positive mother figure in musical theatre. (Seriously- think for a second how rare good, non-ironic mothers are in musicals.) Dancing and climbing up a storm, Tru Verret-Fleming nearly steals the show with his big numbers as Terk, Tarzan's gorilla blood-brother. Kudos to Verret-Fleming and Benjamin Godley Fisher (who plays Terk as a child) for creating a grounded and nuanced performance in a character who veers as close to "sassy gay friend" as a gorilla of indeterminate sexuality can get.
As led by Dr. Brent Alexander, the onstage band is rocking it in full view on a platform above the jungle floor. When Collins's score cooks, in songs like "Who Better than Me" and movie favorites like "Son of Man" and "Trashin' the Camp," the percolating, percussive music recalls musical theatre less than a fusion of Cirque du Soleil's worldbeat and Collins's "Invisible Touch" era hits. Unfortunately, as any rock fan will tell you, a solo Phil Collins ballad is usually a treacly, meandering mess, so the introspective numbers tend to lower the energy of the whole piece. There is, however, the one big exception, THE Tarzan song everyone knows: "You'll Be in My Heart," movingly sung by Alysha Watson and later reprised as a duet with David Toole. It's not only one of the best songs about parenting in the musical theatre canon, it's deservedly considered Phil Collins's masterwork as an adult contemporary artist. (It's also hard to separate the joined thoughts of Phil Collins and apes from the infamous commercial in which a gorilla drums "In the Air Tonight.")
Chances are Tarzan isn't anyone's favorite musical (not even Collins, who probably has a softer spot for Oliver!, where he made his debut as a child star before his rock years). But it's a fun, awe-inspiring way to spend two hours, especially this close to Mothers' Day. It's the kind of production where Jane does rope tricks at curtain call, just to prove anything they can do, she can do better, and the audience eats it up. The top-tier cast and musical direction at PMT has quickly become a steady and predictable asset to the Pittsburgh theatre community; at this point, it almost doesn't matter WHAT show PMT does, you're guaranteed a good time. And you're certainly not going to see a better Tarzan, unless you track down the ape-man himself in the jungle. But chances are, he won't sing like David Toole.