You Tarzan, me disgruntled — but not as disgruntled as someone else would be if he were still alive. A chronology contained in a 2006 edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and the Apes notes that, when the first films adapted from Burroughs’s books were released in 1918, the author was “frustrated by the simplistic way Hollywood treats Tarzan.” Well, if he was irked by those flicks, he’d throw spears at the new musical that has been perpetrated in his name — or sort of in his name, since “Edgar Rice Burroughs” appears only in minuscule type on the program’s title page.
There, it’s acknowledged that the live show Disney has fashioned from the company’s 1999 animated feature film is “based on” the first book in the Burroughs series, the above-mentioned Tarzan of the Apes. It doesn’t say “loosely based,” which would be more accurate. It’s hardly jolting to realize that certain jungle-bred aspects of Tarzan’s character have been expunged from this musical. In that first blockbuster book, Burroughs writes of his existentially free hero, “To kill was the first law of the wild world he knew. Few were his primitive pleasures, but the greatest of these was to hunt and kill….That he joyed in killing, and that he killed with a joyous laugh upon his handsome lips betokened no innate cruelty.”
Librettist David Henry Hwang has downplayed such character traits, as did so many previous adapters. This in itself isn’t reprehensible in a libretto that, if it has any message at all, wants to say something about so-called civilized conduct as differentiated from so-called savage behavior. We live in a time when the peace-loving protagonist is favored over the jingoistic warrior, and this Tarzan reflects that mentality, which is probably the right commercial choice on Disney’s part. The loose-adaptation is much more of a problem in terms of the musical’s helter-skelter storytelling, stock characterizations, and scatterbrained dialogue.
Tarzan survives in the jungle after his shipwrecked parents are killed by a panther. Protected by gorilla mom Kala, who lost a baby at about the time Tarzan showed up, but mistrusted by gorilla patriarch Kerchak, Tarzan is well aware of his difference from the rest of the tribe. As the story is retold by Hwang, who thoroughly garbled Flower Drum Song in his update of that show a few seasons back, Tarzan eventually earns Kerchak’s approval — just as some humans threaten this new tranquility with their arrival on a gorilla-finding expedition. Jane Porter and her professor father are good eggs but they’re accompanied by a bad egg named Clayton, who’d twirl his mustache if he had one. The suspense of the story centers on Tarzan deciding whether he belongs with the “civilized” Porter party or the “savage” gorillas.
Disney’s Tarzan movie works fairly well as a cartoon; Phil Collins sings most of the songs he wrote as voice-overs, and he knows exactly how to put them across. (The flick also has Rosie O’Donnell playing Tarzan’s sidekick, Terk, in her lovably brash manner.) Now that the property has been transferred to the stage, Collins has supplemented his Oscar-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart” and four other songs from the film with nine new numbers; unfortunately, he has not come up with the kind of character songs that a stage musical requires. Indeed, to describe as “songs” the melodies and lyrics that he has scribbled would be to overestimate them. At one point, Kala and Kerchak sing something tagged “Sure as Sun Turns to Moon” while she picks termites out of his fur. Another musical sequence has Jane unintelligibly listing the Latin names of indigenous fauna; it’s a ditzy ditty that will have attending kiddies scratching their heads.
Which brings us to the contributions of Bob Crowley, who has designed, costumed and — oh, yes! — directed Tarzan. Much of it is resplendently green and gorgeous to ogle, starting with a shipwreck (sumptuous lighting by Natasha Katz, reverberant sound by John Shivers), proceeding to the vine-thick basic environment out of which Tarzan and his gorilla chums swing high over the audience, and eventually leading to the lush flowers that Jane sees. (Pichón Baldinu supervised the flying effects; Meryl Tankard choreographed the show.)
Spidery Josh Strickland as Tarzan and, at the performance I saw, Alex Rutherford as the ape man in his boyhood spend much of their time gadding around on all fours. Both are good sports about it. So are Shuler Hensley (Kerchak), Merle Dandridge (Kala), and much of the rest of the cast, who dangle athletically from ropes when not romping on the ground. Jenn Gambatese, Tim Jerome, and Donnie Kershawarz, ambulating on legs only as Jane, her father, and the villainous Clayton, gamely play their unrewarding roles.
If spectacle alone were enough to make a good musical, as many producers mistakenly believe nowadays, this Cirque du Soleil-influenced entry would be a great one. But spectacle doesn’t, and this isn’t. Disney’s Tarzan will leave many audience members wondering: Where’s Johnny Weissmuller when you need him?