Disney Theatrical Productions reportedly spent over 15 million dollars to launch the musical spectacle Tarzan on Broadway. Based on their 1999 animated film with a hit soundtrack by Phil Collins that includes the Oscar winning song “You’ll Be in My Heart,” the extravaganza sailed into town amidst a tremendous publicity blitz and boasting a lush box office advance of 20 million dollars. Big money seems to be the name of the game and Disney has single handedly changed the complexion of the Broadway scene becoming a major player here by turning their animated films Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King into expensive long running hits. Only time will tell if Tarzan succeeds as well, but irregardless the mega show is not a major artistic achievement, despite some staggeringly outstanding special effects by the talented designer-director Bob Crowley.The amazing opening sequence of a ship being tossed across the sea in a thrilling technologically created storm replete with thunder and lightning is the highlight of the evening. The drama begins simply with a blue scrim curtain on which moving images of the continent of Africa are projected until a ship sails into view on the blue ocean. These images are morphed into a violent sea storm enhanced by a soundtrack that brings you inside the ship, as a man, a woman, and a child struggle frantically against the powerful waters. We witness bodies twisting in the air and falling through space against a background of horrendous sounds until the family is ultimately thrown upon the beach with a blast of lightning. In a momentary flash the blue ocean is transformed into a green forest of tangled hanging vines where their struggle to survive continues. They claw their way across the beach until a black panther descends upon them, killing the parents, and leaving only the crying baby behind.
At first you feel Bob Crowley is following in the inventive model of Julie Taymor’s imaginative Lion King, but all such hopes fade rather quickly. The inspiration of the spectacular opening moments is not sustained, and the entire evening goes rapidly down hill. Most of the fault lies in the book by David Henry Hwang that reduces Edgar Rice Burroughs’s adventure novel into a simplistic formula of good verses evil. The plot rushes buy, and the people are turned into little more than cartoon characters. The message about outcasts discovering who they are and finding their place is, indeed, uplifting, but the journey is obvious and unfortunately not very engaging.
The helpless orphaned infant is discovered by two gorillas and taken under the protection of their gorilla tribe becoming part of their family. As a mature young man he encounters his first human, a beautiful young woman named Jane Porter, when a group of British explorers comes to the coast of West Africa. When Tarzan and Jane fall in love, their relationship becomes the catalyst for the story’s conflicts, which are played out without much tension or excitement. You smile at the silliness, but most everything is jaw droopingly corny and obvious.
In between the obligatory scenes and some dramatic staging effects you get acrobatic gorillas swinging about the set on vivid green vines. Pichon Baldinu (DeLa Gurda) has created some interesting aerial effects, which combine nicely with Meryl Tankard’s gymnastic choreography that are exciting the first time you witness them. As the evening moves along, however, they suffer from a sameness that is apparent in the rest of the show.
Josh Strickland sings well and is eye catching, if somewhat mannered, in the leading role. The entire cast is uniformly good making the most of the material as only outstanding professionals can. Each member has a quality that is appropriate for their respective role. The actors playing gorillas have the most difficult challenge coming off more like deformed hairy people instead of apes.
With a built in audience form the hit movie, the superb opening, and the popular music, might just carry the day for Tarzan. The children possibly won’t notice the lack of dramatic impact, and the story can coast by on its endearing message. In that case Disney will smile their way to the bank. Hopefully, however, in the near future, and Tarzan must be viewed as a transitional work here, all the elements of the new technological advances in both sound and special effects will be combined in revolutionary ingenious ways that combine music and story to ignite our spirits.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Tarzan is now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46 Street between Broadway and Eighth Ave. For tickets call 212-307-4100 or at the box office.