Chicago Theatre Review
A Sense That Something is Missing
Disney’s Tarzan: the Stage Musical – NightBlue Theatre
Continuing in the vein of other previously successful stage adaptations of Disney cartoons, such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” this musical first opened on Broadway in the Spring of 2006. The critical response was lukewarm, at best, and audience attendance was disappointing. It was noted that the musical ironically flattened when it was translated from a two-dimensional, animated film into a three-dimensional, live-action theatrical musical. For all its spectacle, only the show’s lighting design was nominated for a Tony Award.
For both versions, pop celebrity Phil Collins penned the music, adding nine new songs to fill out the 1999 film score. However, as is often the case with most Disney stage adaptations, the best songs are those that made the film so memorable. Here, this includes the beautiful pop ballad, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” sung in the show by Kala, the female gorilla who rescues and raises Tarzan as her own baby. Other excellent songs from the musical include “Two Worlds, which both opens and closes the show, “I Need to Know,” sung by a young Tarzan, and the lovely “Sure As Sun Turns to Moon,” sung by Kala and her gorilla mate, Kerchak, and later reprised by Kala and Tarzan. The songs basically all sound similar and feature lyrics that seem uninspired and banal.
The original Broadway production featured an overload of impressive, eye-popping visual effects, which also tended to mask the lack of heart and soul in David Henry Hwang’s adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Tarzan of the Apes. Some New York critics complained that the production was “insistently kinetic.” They called it “fidgety” and said that “any tension or excitement is routinely sabotaged by overkill.” Director Bob Crowley might’ve bit off more than he could handle by also designing the costumes and sets. He bathed the entire stage, ceiling to floor, in a green, undulating wall of jungle grass. Hidden behind this curtain were secret ledges, caves and an abundance of flying apparatus. Meryl Tankard choreographed the show, which was peppered with plenty of impressive aerial work, by Pichon Baldinu.
The musical opened with a rocking schooner projected on the act curtain. Through the ship’s image, the audience could behold a cowering man and woman cradling a tiny baby. As the violent storm continued to ravage their world, the sound of splitting timbers filled the air. The front drape suddenly disappeared and the audience’s attention was directed to the man and woman, now suspended on invisible cables, struggling to swim to the surface of the water. With another lighting change, the couple were seen crawling down the upstage wall, which had become the beach. One more lighting effect and a treehouse suddenly appeared. As the man finished its construction, a vicious leopard suddenly appeared. He kills both the parents, but not before the mother has hid her tiny baby safely inside a trunk before the bloodthirsty cat could get to him. The same leopard then raided the troop of gorillas nearby and killed a baby ape. Thus Kala, the devastated mother gorilla, comes to find the orphaned human baby boy and pledges to raise the foundling child as her own.
Obviously, this isn’t entirely what audiences will experience at the North Belmont venue. NightBlue Theatre, which prides itself on taking big, splashy Broadway musicals and modifying them to fit a smaller stage, uses a reduced, non-union cast and works with a far more modest budget. The company does its best to bring a show like this to life for Chicago audiences. Unless theatergoers attending this production have also seen the original Broadway version, they probably won’t realize what they’re missing here. They will, however, sense that something is lacking. The question remains, does this scaled down version succeed in delivering the company’s goal to present “performances that move you”?
The answer is yes, but only at times. The single best element of this production is Michael Kaish’s six-member, onstage band. They’re a talented group of instrumentalists who brilliantly deliver Phil Collins’ layered, percussive score. The jungle beat emanating from various drums, cymbals, shakers and the fine, selective use of a rainstick mesh nicely with the keyboard, guitar, bass and reeds. As musical director, Kaish has guided his cast to skillfully perform the two dozen songs that enhance the iconic tale of a man raised by apes.
Khaki Pixley, as Kala, provides one of the two best voices in this production. A familiar performer to Chicago audiences, Ms. Pixley has been seen in productions by Porchlight Music Theatre, Bailiwick, Theo Ubique and Circle Theatre. She nicely conveys the love and tenderness of “You’ll Be in My Heart,” and demonstrates the requisite maternal fervor for her adopted human son. She is, quite simply, the heart of this show.
The production’s other exciting performance comes from Rachel Juncker, as Jane. Returning to the Chicago stage, this former Circle Theatre actress shows strength of character and musical prowess at every turn. The actress sometimes comes across as a bit over-the-top in her enthusiastic portrayal, especially on such an intimate stage; but her eagerness and energy is refreshingly top drawer and her infatuation for Tarzan is believable.
In the title role of Tarzan, Jomar Ferreras is a capable actor. He looks great in his loincloth, sounds fine in most of his solo numbers and the few times he mounts the grapevines, the actor shows that he’s quite a swinger. As young Tarzan, nine-year-old Jean-Eduard Rodriguez is charming and cute as a button. Although the boy gives it everything, he sometimes has difficulty mastering the songs’ higher notes.
Jordan DeBose is forceful and often frightening as Kerchak, Kala’s mate and the leader of the gorilla troop. Kerchak is a determined chieftain and protector of his troop, particularly when guarding the mother of his child. He’s fierce and forceful, keeping the safety of his group first and foremost. DeBose creates a powerful character and he sings quite well, but he’s often lost on a stage crowded with so many other similarly-costumed characters.
Tarzan’s childhood best friend Terk is played by newcomer Juwon Tyrel Perry. He also has a difficult time maintaining his presence amid the crowded ensemble and Bob Knuth’s cluttered, jungle-gym scenic design. Perry also tends to swallow his words, making him especially hard to understand. In the thankless roles of Porter, Jane’s naturalist father, and Clayton, the big game hunter villain of the piece, Tim Casey and Garrett Haley are satisfactory. The large ensemble fills almost every inch of the downstage area, carrying out the demands of Kevin Bellie’s uninspired staging and simplistic choreography. Where the director’s guidance works best and is appreciated most, however, is in his smaller, more intimate two- and three-character scenes.
This is a musical that sounds great on paper, but comes with a series of inherent difficulties. First, there’s a problematic script that relies too heavily on spectacle and too little on the heart and soul of its characters. The score by Phil Collins offers some nice melodies and infectious rhythms, but his lyrics are bland and generic. While less is often more in most productions, that concept doesn’t work as well here, as it has with some of this group’s previous offerings. This modest little theatre company, which has giant aspirations, doesn’t quite have the ability to astound its audiences this time out without the razzle-dazzle of Broadway.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 15- by NightBlue Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.