BWW Interview: Stephen Ferri of TARZAN at White Plains Performing Arts Center

First professional production of Disney's TARZAN in Westchester Opens Friday, December 18.

Tarzan, The Stage Musical ® will play the White Plains Performing Arts Center December 18 - January 10 and is directed by Jeremy Quinn with music direction by Stephen Ferri and choreography by Lexie Fennell Frare.

In this day and age of constant human brutality and tragedy, the story of TARZAN reminds us of what's really important, especially at the holidays, the unconditional love of true family, whether biological or chosen. And although we all 'look' different, under the skin we are just the same. Disney's TARZAN is victorious in bringing to the stage a well-known story with unforgettable melodies and heart-pumping music perfect for the entire family! - Jeremy Quinn, Director

TARZAN ® features music by Grammy and Oscar winning music pop icon Phil Collins and a book by Tony Award-winning playwright, David Henry Hwang. Based on the smash-hit Disney animated film, Tarzan ® tells the story of an infant boy orphaned in a shipwreck on the shores of West Africa. The child is taken in and raised by a tribe of gorillas. He becomes a man, thriving in this primitive environment, until the arrival of a hunting expedition and his realization of the world beyond his jungle home. Tarzan ® features high-flying excitement and hits like the Academy Award winning "You'll Be in My Heart" as well as "Son of Man" and "Two Worlds" making Tarzan® an unforgettable theatrical experience.

The cast features Kyle Arzaga (Young Terk), Nicolas Baumgartner (Clayton), Korie Lee Blossey (Kerchak), Jake Bridges (Snipes), Melanie Burg (Female Ensemble), Ben Carlson (Male Ensemble), Jessica Crilley (Female Ensemble), Jenna Dallacco (Jane), Deanna Giulietti (Female Ensemble), Jesse Goodman (Young Tarzan), Melissa Rose Hirsch (Female Ensemble), Darius Jordan Lee (Male Ensemble), Steven Liberto (Male Ensemble), Toby Miller (Professor Porter), Annie Nelson (Female Ensemble), Melanie Porras (Female Ensemble), Shawn W. Smith (Male Ensemble), Jeremy Swift (Male Ensemble), Jennifer Theriot (Kala), Cartreze Tucker (Terk), Max Albert Vivino (Young Tarzan), Kyle Wolf (Young Terk), Marek Zurowski (Male Ensemble), and Chris Stevens as Tarzan.

I had the opportunity to talk to Musical Director, Stephen Ferri, who gave me a real musical understanding of the show.

Hello Stephen. I am happy and excited to interview you about Tarzan. It is the Westchester premiere!

Yes, this is the first full out regional production in Westchester. Something else that makes the show a little bit different from other Disney movie musicals is that it doesn't center around a princess. There are so many Disney princess musicals that everyone knows. Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast etc. And this is one show that has a male as the center of its story. I think it is nice to have something that boys can maybe connect a little more to then your standard princess fairytale story. It's a show that is relatable by all ages and genders.

There is that need because a lot of boys want to get into theater, but they don't know what they can relate to.

Agreed. The nice thing about the show is it just speaks so much about diversity and how we can connect through it. This idea of 2 worlds one family is an overall motif of the show. There's an ape family and a human family. How the apes take in this outsider (Tarzan) into their world and eventually find that bond between them. By the end they see how very similar they are inside even though they look different on the outside. Tarzan spends the whole arc of the show trying to figure out who he is not knowing his past since he only knows what it is like growing up in the jungle with apes. Then he meets Jane and sees another human for the first time. Jeremy Quinn said it best "In this day and age of constant human brutality and tragedy, the story of TARZAN ® reminds us of what's really important, especially at the holidays - the unconditional love of true family, whether biological or chosen. And although we all 'look' different, under the skin we are just the same. Disney's TARZAN ® is victorious in bringing to the stage a well-known story with unforgettable melodies and heart-pumping music perfect for the entire family!

Is this show is cast with the locals and professionals?

It is. We lucked out that we have a mix of local residents and NYC performers in our company. We are lucky to have a local like Jenna Dallacco, who grew up in Greenburgh, and now lives in Irvington, who is a professional performer full time. She has a lot of Westchester connections not only as a performer but has also as a voice teacher at the Sandbox Theatre, WPPAC, Lighthouse Youth Theatre etc. She is definitely someone that the community knows. It is nice to get to work with Jen

Photo by Kathleen Davisson

na, who is a professional performer, but also has ties to the area. Her performance is truly amazing in this role.

Now in terms of musically directing the show, how is the score? Is it challenging? I mean it's Phil Collins so...

Yes the score is a blast to play and has its challenging moments especially for the drummer! It's Phil Collins music which means there is always a great groove. There are twelve of us in the orchestra all of whom are professional musicians, many of which play Broadway shows every week that make the score come to life each night. I actually think we are one of the only regional theatres in the area that actually still hire a large live orchestra these days. The past few shows has had 12-15 musicians and always the full orchestration as intended.

Something that is unique about this show, that I don't think you find in many other shows, is there truly is a blend of two worlds of music (again brining the motif into the score)

The show has all the well known songs from the movie (You'll Be in My Heart, Son of Man, Trashin' the Camp etc.) as well as a few additional ones that were added, as they always do, for the Broadway production. However, most of the underscoring in the show, to my knowledge, is based off of the movies film score. Which I find to be so fascinating because so many screen to stage adaptations rarely keep the film score aspect of it intact.

Which leads me to the challenge of who to hire for the orchestra. The score has so many styles and I had to find people that were able to play it all, especially my horn section. The entire show has an underlying groove which is so important to keep this show moving. We have songs like Trashin' the Camp, which is a funk-soul number and Strangers Like Me, which is a pop-rock number. Then, the next song is underscoring with this classical film score style to it. So we truly have two worlds of music blending into one overall score!

Now are you taking the score and sort of rearranging it?

No we aren't. The version they license that we're allowed to do is its own version of the show that was re-conceived and reconstructed, I believe by Disney, similar to what they did for Little Mermaid. This version has a bunch of changes from the Broadway production (many of which are great changes). It also allowed us to have four kids in the show because there is a young Tarzan and a Young Terk (double cast) role now in the production. In the original Broadway show there was only Young Tarzan and Terk was only the full age character then entire show.

And that's different from the Broadway? They didn't have that. They gave Terk a back stor

In a sense, but I think it was changed to allow us to see the 2 children grow up together versus one growing up and the other not. You're asking a little bit more of the audience to bridge that gap then seeing them grow up together as in this production. We are also grateful that two of the four kids are also well know locals.

So when you work with Jeremy Quinn on all of this, does he... does the acting come first or does the music come first?

The reason why Jeremy and I work so well together is we look at the total package... We see so many auditions where people just come in and they just sing a song no acting or anything. They just don't do anything with it. And that's great if you're singing in a bar or in your bedroom however, it doesn't help us when trying to cast a role in a live show. For us the vocals are always a top priority as no one wants to sit through 2 hours of a show with someone who can't really sing the part as it's easily the first thing noticed. But you also have to be able to act it and bring it to life. It's very rare that we'll pick a singer that can't really act it or an actor who can't sing it. We try to find the best overall package of the acting and the singing which we definitely have done in this production.

To be honest this show was one of the hardest shows we had to cast here as there are just so many elements to these roles and the shows requirements. We needed very athletic actors in order to handle the choreography and acrobatic elements of the show as we do fly! But, they also had to be able to sing and act he show which is not easy. Another challenge is we have to have to cast the ensemble in a way that most of them can cover a lead role equally as well as the person we cast for the role AND be the right fit for the ensemble. It was a challenge.

That sounds really innovative! What's your process for putting the show together?

The music is taught first, in about 2 days. Since we only rehearse for two weeks, it is basically a twelve to fourteen day turnaround time for us to put the entire show together. One of my notes, as the music director that I always try to implement on my show is vocalizing the acting. Meaning, we should be able to close our eyes and not watch one thing the actor is physically doing and still be able to fully understand their characters arc/emotion and purpose just by the way you phrase and vocalize the song. I think each actor needs to find how to tell their story vocally, and then layer the acting on top so that you get the full character development. Next we do the choreography and then finally the blocking. So it is always a ton of work to do in a short amount of time.

And do you think there's an audience for this show because I don't think it did very well on Broadway, from what I remember.

Correct. The Princess shows get top priority in my opinion when it comes to popularity and success in the Disney movie musical category. While the shows that don't have a princess and fairytale at the center of the story telling don't seem to get as much attention for some reason. I think its nice to have a show that certainly has something for everyone For the adults who are Phil Collins fans, you can hear some of your favorite songs, for the kids both boys and girls you get to see a Disney movie come to life on stage and for theatre goers come and see something different then your standard classic musical for the holidays. Plus I also think show itself has a great message and a great story that we try and talk about and tackle in everyday life.

...And Phil Collins has come out of retirement, so it is relevant.

Yeah, he's going back on tour I believe.

So you will definitely have that tie-in.

Yes Phil Collins' score is a lot of fun in the show and we know so many Disney shows that are out there and written by, obviously, Alan Menken, who is a fantastic composer. It is nice however to also be able to see that type of material written by other people as well and see how they take on a Disney movie and adapt it for stage. Especially an artist who's main focus in life was his own music career in the everyday music scene vs musical theatre.

Yes! Even Lin-Manuel Miranda is writing the next Princess movie. I mean. It's kind of nice to see it all evolving! And I have to say, even talking to you now, I mean the fact that it's such a boy heavy kind of production, already makes me think, "Wow. I should bring my sons to see this."

100%. And I think we had a lot of people call for tickets and were kind of like, "What kind of show is this?" I always find that question entertaining because people have this idea of what a Disney movie musical is targeted towards. Average theatre goers feel like it's a kids show so I won't go and then even more so since it's a male lead vs a female that it's only appropriate towards young boys vs girls. I couldn't disagree more. It's based off a Disney film and I know a show like Tarzan doesn't necessarily have a princess as the main character, but the messages are very similar regardless who tells it. It is told from the idea of a male's point of view. I mean, you don't see Tarzan, as a grown man, until the end of the first act. And you don't meet Jane either until the end of the first act. So you kind of spend the whole first act watching young Tarzan, Young Terk, and this group of apes carry you through the story and show you their world without "Humans". Then act 2 does a 180 and shows you the world with humans and their approach on the ape families. Overall the show truly has something for everyone and I wouldn't say that there is a specific target audience for this show and that it truly is an overall great family musical.

....So it is parallel to The Lion King, in a way.

Exactly. And I would say it's the most similar to the way that that story is told.

Disney could have worked that angle. I wonder why they did not do it that way.

I do think that if you look at the original Broadway production, the design of that show, coming from my degree in technical theater, you look at the design of Tarzan, which was very stylized. It wasn't a very literal set. It was fabric. It was general greenery very interpretive. It wasn't like Beauty and the Beast when you saw that on Broadway which was a legitimate castle, a legitimate town. It was very realistic as a style of design.

The Lion King did a great job merging that stylized medium between the costumes, puppets and set. Tarzan does this as well. We have elements that are stylized as well as elements that are a little bit more realistic. It helps tell the story for everyone. We did our best in the design to give everyone a little something that may spark their interest and I think we achieved the blend really well.

Well, it was great talking to you and learning about the inner workings of the show. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me!

Tarzan, The Stage Musical will play the White Plains Performing Arts Center December 18-20 (Friday at 7pm; Saturday at2pm & 7pm; Sunday at 2pm), December 26 - 30 (Saturday at 2pm & 7pm; Sunday at 2pm, Monday & Tuesday at 7pm;Wednesday at 2pm) & January 2-10 (Saturday at 2pm & 7pm; Sunday at 2pm; Friday at 7pm; Saturday at 2pm & 7pm and Sunday at 2pm). Tickets are $25 - $47. A $135 Family Four Pack (2 Adults & 2 Kids tickets) is available for the 7pmperformances on December 18, 19, 26, 28, & 29.

White Plains Performing Arts Center is located on the third level of City Center off Mamaroneck Avenue and Main Street in downtown White Plains. For tickets: visit the theatre box office Monday-Friday (11am-6pm), purchase tickets online atwww.wppac.com or call 914-328-1600. For Group Sales, please contact barbara@wppac.com.



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From This Author Kathryn Kitt