Tarzan – May 10, 2017

In recent years, when you entered the Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s Codding Theater you found yourself in an undersea world, or on the deck of the Titanic, or in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Currently, you’ll find yourself in an African jungle as the Spreckels Theatre Company presents Disney’s Musical Tarzan, running now through May 21.

It’s a stage adaptation of the 2009 animated film and follows the “origin” story pretty closely. Stranded in the African jungle and soon orphaned, a young boy is taken into the care of a mother gorilla and raised as one of her own. After growing up into a strapping young (ape)man, the boy named Tarzan comes face-to-face with other humans. It’s a science expedition led by Professor Porter and his daughter Jane. They’ve come just to observe and study gorillas but their nefarious guide Clayton has other plans.

The film had five songs written by Phil Collins, including the Oscar-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart”, and for the stage show he added nine additional numbers. Like in the film, most musical numbers serve as narration. Tarzan didn’t sing in the film, but he sure does in the stage show and yes, he yells, too. The songs aren’t particularly memorable but they serve the play and they’re well delivered by the cast.

The show is well cast with the role of Tarzan split between two actors, Walker Brinskele and Michael Lumb, each taking the role in alternating performances. At the show I attended Tarzan was played by Lumb, who has the athleticism and voice to tackle the role. The always delightful Abbey Lee makes for a fun Jane and plays well off of Lumb and Kit Grimm as her father. Jeremy Berrick adds another villain to his Spreckels résumé with his over-the-top take on the role of the evil guide Clayton. He’s a lot of fun to watch, even if the character choice seems a bit out of place, especially in comparison to others.

The array of character choices and acting styles is quite substantial, ranging from the almost method-like performances of Brian Watson and Shawna Eiermann as Kerchak and Kala, Tarzan’s ape “parents” to Berrick’s cartoonish, self-aware Clayton. Everyone else falls somewhere in between. This may be the result of having the directorial reins shared between Gene Abravaya and David L. Yen. It’s not that any of the choices or styles seem wrong individually, I’m just not sure they gelled.

That being said, Watson and Eiermann are quite good, both in their characters’ physical beings and in their vocal delivery. It takes some time to adjust to the very human voices emanating from Pamela Enz’s inventive costumes (no gorilla suits here) but once you suspend belief you realize their performances are quite magnetic. Scottie Woodard amusingly fills the sidekick role as Tarzan’s buddy Terk.

The shows best moments were when the elements of costume, lighting, choreography and music came together, best exemplified by Act I’s almost hallucinogenic “Waiting for this Moment” number when Lee’s Jane sings of the joy of finally living a life she only dreamed about while the local flora and fauna dance, float and fly around her. The ensemble also opens Act II energetically with “Trashin’ the Camp”.

Disney’s Musical Tarzan may have been intended as a young male-attracting counterpoint to The Little Mermaid, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing many kids arriving at the theatre in little loincloths. While definitely one of the lower-rung entries in the Disney theatrical canon, it’s still a well-produced and entertaining family show with an imaginative set and the aforementioned costumes making it a visual feast for the eyes. Between a band of gorillas, a man-eating plant, a marauding leopard, a hiss-worthy, rifle-toting villain and a vine-swinging ape-boy and man, there’s plenty to keep the younger tykes’ attention.

Disney’s Musical Tarzan plays through May 21 at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center.

For more information, go to spreckelsonline.com

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