OREM — Adapted from the original Disney film, Tarzan: The Musical, brings Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic coming-of-age story to the outdoor SCERA Shell Theater. In the story, a father and mother find themselves shipwrecked upon the shores of an island off the coast of Africa, and immediately set to constructing a treehouse for their infant son. All goes awry when a leopard attacks and kills the parents, an event mirrored in the local gorilla tribe when this same leopard kills the son of gorillas Kerchak and Kala. Kala finds the human baby and decides to rear it as her own, much to the chagrin of Kerchak. Named “Tarzan,” and reared by the colony of gorillas, the young boy struggles to find his place in this society. Boy grows to man, ostracized from the community, and learns to survive easily in his jungle environment. Kala seeks to see his return to their colony, and pleads with Kerchak to allow him back. Adult Tarzan’s quest for acceptance is hindered further with the arrival of a ship, bearing a group of English explorers in an expedition to discover the natural wonders of Africa. Tarzan and Jane connect, though he is overwhelmed to find a creature that looks just like he does. As Tarzan explores his human origins, he becomes more aware of a growing affection for Jane, absolutely returned on the part of the female naturalist. Others in the English party’s intentions are not so pure, however, as the audience learns of Clayton’s desire to capture and sell the gorillas to zoos. Tarzan must decide whether or not to live in his jungle paradise with the gorilla family, or to seek new love and adventures abroad with Jane and co. This decision, and the consequential fallout from Tarzan’s choice, leads to an exciting exploration of identity, and coming of age in the most exotic of settings.
Spectacle takes the forefront of this production. I was immediately struck by just how massive and intricate the set design played out. A multi-tiered set with three distinct locations helped to delineate the narrative some, as well as draw audience into the world of this hidden jungle. Rope swings, turning tree houses, cargo netting, and use of the entire amphitheater worked to great effect, managing to convey the vastness and intricate elaboration of an African jungle. It was not until the sun set, however, and the lighting was more visible that the real beauty of this exhibition set in. Lush flora and fauna mingled with exotic lights to create a richly textured vision, truly breath-taking. The little nuances of the lighting and set (designed by James Larsen and Shawn Mortensen, respectively) created a vibrant environment, and I was excited to see this aspect executed to such great effect.
Costumes and makeup added to this textured scenery. Kelsey Seaver’s fluorescent and colorful costuming brings a vivacious energy to the performance, helping to suggest a greatly up-tempo sort of spirits. I was particularly fond of the costuming used for apes, and in combination with the makeup and posturing, found a very whimsical sort of reverse-anthropomorphizing. In keeping with this notion of spectacle, the costuming for those British-based characters was absolutely beautiful, and helped to clearly demonstrate just how different the characters were from the jungle inhabitants. I felt as though they fit well into the world of the play. Barring a distinctive, distracting fake tan, I was overall impressed with this aspect of the production design. Nat Reed’s assistance in creating puppets for Tarzan elevated the production value some, although more dexterity in handling said puppets would have lent to the illusion of humans playing animals. But on the front of sheer technical prowess, it was a feat well worth recognition.
For such a richly textured technical structure, I found myself disappointed by the use of the space. Director Shawn Mortensen’s blocking felt linear and one dimensional against the many-levels of the set. Actors seemed to have some difficulty in traversing a large ramp placed within the set, though I was otherwise grateful for their familiarity with the other, more complicated set pieces. Physicality used for gorillas and various other animals worked to great effect, and I was grateful to the actors for their collective commitment to the animal’s embodiment. And the dedication of Tarzan (Brian Smith) to the physical requirements of the character merits special applause—the manual dexterity of swinging from ropes and climbing around set was executed with an aesthetic ease. Choreography, though, within this production of Tarzan seemed rather hit-or-miss for most of the evening. In large numbers, it worked well and helped to give that impressive, Broadway-esque resonance to the show. What didn’t work for me was that the large group choreography also both distracted from the few intimate, emotional scenes. Rather than to use the dancing to uplift and support the story, it seemed as though the choreography pulled attentions directly from the story.
Emotional neglect proved a recurring issue during the evening for me. Part of this stems from a rather simplistic script, one that seems to shy away from a clear narrative climax. Conflicts are brought up repeatedly, and rather than seeing the prolonged effect or buildup of story, they are resolved within a matter of mere seconds. Weighty moments—Kerchak’s death, Clayton’s betrayal, etc., are given almost no gravity and so it is difficult to see any true emotional repercussions from these events. More seriousness, more recognition of the legitimate tragedy held within the story might have been resolved with the pacing of this show. Dialogue felt awkward at times, seeming to function more as buildup to songs than to advance the storyline. Pacing and a weak script made for a show that dragged well on into the night, especially burdened by a shallow touching on the important topics of this production. That being said, I felt that there were several distinct moments within the performance that offered a strong emotional connection—particularly the performance of “Everything That I Am,” when punctuated by the poignant words “I’m a Man.” Kala and Tarzan’s performance of the “You’ll Be in My Heart (reprise)” was perhaps the most grounded moment of the evening—Brian Smith and Lauren Anderson brought a tangible chemistry to this scene as mother and son, their relationship one of my favorites in the show.
Brian Smith as the titular character brought a delightful physicality and curious energy to his portrayal, and the stamina requisite to keep energy up for the entire performance was truly admirable. I appreciated the braveness with which he explored the character, and the rich tenor of his voice absolutely filled the vocal requirements of the role. I would have liked to see more moments of honesty in his acting, however. Rian Shepherd as Jane Porter was positively delightful; her exuberance and energy bringing a much needed boost upon her entrance. I looked forward to seeing her on stage, particularly in those moments with Mr. Porter (Jim Murphy). The two were a delightful duo, charismatic and charming to behold. Lauren Anderson’s Kala brought a genuine tenderness to the stage; her maternal sincerity and overall sweetness a nice counterpoint to a very masculine energy on stage. Carson Davies featured a very austere, morally upright Kerchak, and I appreciated the integrity with which he presented the character. Special laud goes to Cairo McGee and Lily Shepherd as Young Tarzan and Young Terk, respectively. Both brought a strong energy and presence to their performance, and held their own against adult counterparts. However, McKelle Shaw absolutely stole the show for me as a female Terk. An understanding of performance energy and positive manipulation of the audience and stage made her a shining star, and presence I greatly looked forward to watching. Her charisma and physicality combined for a truly amazing performance, and gave life to the stage every time she entered.
Overall, I appreciated the amount of thought put into the aesthetic of this show. Visually, it made a great impact and was a feast for the eyes. I only wish the heart had received such edification throughout the show, instead of a few isolated moments. While my personal reaction to the show absolutely left me wanting more, I did note that many younger theatergoers and their families seemed to enjoy themselves, the spectacle of it all more than enough to provide an evening of lovely theater.