Tarzan, baby, you've come a long way from the days of Johnny Weissmuller - and that's not necessarily a compliment.
Hollywood's most famous incarnation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle hero might have a hard time recognizing the new version of himself, the one unveiled Wednesday at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre. That's where Disney opened a stage adaptation of its 1999 animated film.
And while the elaborate production is visually stunning, the show, directed and designed by Bob Crowley, is emotionally and musically lightweight - almost as skimpy as Tarzan's leather loincloth.
Weissmuller was a beefy guy, and his Tarzan had a distinct personality, something never quite achieved by any of his cinematic successors such as Lex Barker, Gordon Scott or Jock Mahoney.
Josh Strickland, Broadway's Tarzan, is bland, boyish and bulk-free - the Ape Man by way of Abercrombie & Fitch. The biggest thing about him is his voice. It is one of those piercing instruments favored by contestants on "American idol," where Strickland apparently was once a national finalist.
It's a voice perfectly suited to the pop songs of Phil Collins, who has augmented his "Tarzan" movie score, including the Academy Award-winning "You'll Be in My Heart," with more than a half-dozen undistinguished new songs. The music, while melodic, is not theatrical. It's anthemlike in presentation, and, more often than not, stalls David Henry Hwang's straightforward if not terribly involving recitation of how Tarzan came to be and his subsequent identity crisis.
The Disney movie was short on plot and so is the stage version. The evening starts with a terrific shipwreck, tossing father, mother and baby on the shores of Africa. The parents are soon dead, plunging to their deaths after being pursued by a fierce, scary leopard. (Theatergoers with small children be warned.) The youngster is rescued by a female gorilla, who raises the tyke as her own.
We watch Tarzan growing up - a role played at different performances by Daniel Manche and Alex Rutherford - under the watchful eye of his surrogate parents (portrayed by Merie Dandridge and Shuler Hensley). They are suitably grave and majestic.
Crowley's ape costumes accentuate fuzzy, almost feathery bodies and heads, but the faces remain human. They give the performers room to bound and leap across the jungle setting. That movement is the work of several people, most notably Pichon Baldinu, who did the aerial design and Meryl Tankard, in charge of the athletic choreography. It's exhausting.
Crowley, best known for his Tony-winning sets for the Lincoln Center Theater revival of "Carousel" and Disney's "Aida," gives his all in the design department. And his work is quite eye-popping.
The dominant color of the vine-tangled setting is green, lush shades that range from dark emerald to Kelly green to almost chartreuse. But the designer doesn't rest with a jungle setting. There's a lovely nighttime rendezvous for Tarzan and Jane, complete with a large moon, similar to the orb he created for "Carousel."
The mammoth settings tend to dwarf the performers, particularly when the intrepid foreigners arrive to collect exotic flora and fauna. Jane, the incessantly perky British botanist, is portrayed by Jenn Gambatese with her cheerfulness amped up to the rafters, while Tim Jerome shows commendable restraint as her kindly father. Their impetuous, gun-toting American guide, played by Donnie Keshawarz, is a pallid villain, and his comeuppance by Tarzan is remarkably anticlimactic.
But then the sparks between Jane and Tarzan don't exactly ignite either. And humor is scarce, too, although a smidgen can be found in the performance of Chester Gregory II as Terk, the most jivin' and incongruously streetwise of the apes. He gets to lead the crew in Collins' jazzy "Trashin' the Camp," the catchiest number in the film and on stage.
In one of the musical's most accomplished bits of stagecraft, a huge butterfly swings and soars over the audience.
With a musical as unfortunately earthbound as "Tarzan," you have to appreciate every high-flying moment you can get.
I found myself consulting my watch frequently during "Tarzan," the Disney musical that brings the current Broadway season to an inglorious close.
The show, with a book by David Henry Hwang and score by Phil Collins, gets off to an impressive start with the enactment of a shipwreck in which the English parents of the lad who will become Tarzan float through water and then walk around dazed on an unknown shore -we watch them from above, the stage being used ingeniously, as if it were a movie screen, by director-designer Bob Crowley.
Soon, however, the novelties get boring. By 8:20, 1 noted, I was already tired of gorillas swinging over the audience. By 8:45, they were climbing the proscenium, which was briefly amusing. At 8:50, the stage was full of elegantly designed jungle butterflies and other exotica, but the scene was static - like the music. After the intermission, the gorillas did some bungee jumping, also briefly amusing.
Between these attempts at creating visual excitement, there is a modicum of plot. The shipwrecked baby, Tarzan (Josh Strickiand), is discovered by a female gorilla, Kala (Merle Dandridge), who looks after him despite the misgivings of her suspicious husband, Kerchak (Shuler Hensley), who has had unfortunate experiences with humans.
When Tarzan has grown up, an expedition of British scientists arrives: a pedantic but kindly father (Tim Jerome), his equally pedantic daughter, Jane (Jenn Gambatese), and their crude American marksman (Donnie Keshawarz).
The tone of what little story there is varies between earnestness and tongue in cheek. Because it mostly seems cartoonish, "Tarzan" is annoying in using its final scenes for an attempt to create something touching.
The actors do their best, especially Hensley as the wary Kerchak, Dandridge as his torn wife and Jerome as the Wodehouse-like father.
Strickland is certainly an appealing action figure, and at times his movements are uncannily apelike. He sings powerfully, but the book never gives him a clear identity. Its weakest creation is the prissy Jane, whom Gambatese cannot make attractive. Collins' score has an earthiness but no dramatic power.
Crowley, who has done some amazing sets (like his 1994 "Carousel"), seldom gets beyond bland - either as designer or director.
Ever since "Cats," which turned the Winter Garden into a gigantic haunted house, musicals have become increasingly amusement park rides, focusing on scenic thrills rather than solid storytelling. "Tarzan" wouldn't make the grade as a ride at Disney World. On Broadway, it seems merely a tourist trap.
You, "Tarzan"! Me, Agonized!
Disney's new musical swung shakily into the Richard Rodgers Theatre last night, and as far I'm concerned, it can swing right back out again. It made me nostalgic for "The Drowsy Chaperone" and even "Lestat." Well, perhaps not "Lestat."
The talented Phil Collins wrote the music for "Tarzan," and here and there, glints of that talent shone through -although it was all so vastly overamplified that it seemed to be making up in volume whatever it was it lacked anywhere else.
The book, by David Henry Hwang of "M. Butterfly" fame, tried hard to anthropomorphize the gorillas and to humanize the humans in a ludicrously doomed effort to give the love story of Tarzan and Jane credibility - something, ironically, that seemed not to trouble more credible versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic potboiler.
Perhaps the most acceptable aspect of this sad, busy and loud evening was Bob Crowley's staging and designs. Together, with Natasha Katz's lighting, he offered images of true beauty.
Of course, the very idea of a theatrical "Tarzan" presupposes flying. Since a stage Tarzan isn't going to dive in and swim like Johnny Weissmulier, the concept - almost the unspoken contract with the audience - is that Tarzan and his gorilla friends are going to glide in the air like that young man on the flying trapeze.
And here the considerable expertise of aerial designer Pichon Baldinu, of De La Guarda fame, was used to decent effect, and the flying was neatly dovetailed, if that's the word, into the dances provided by distinguished Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard.
But the show was wrecked from the onset by its concept. Perhaps the Disney people will realize that not every one of their cartoons contains the kernel of a great Broadway show.
A major problem was the casting of Tarzan himself. With his slight figure, noncharismatic presence and modest acting, acrobatic and vocal skills, former "American Idol" finalist Josh Strickland hardly seemed a natural selection.
As Kerchak, the gruffly wise gorilla chief, the experienced Shuler Hensley is fine; so, too, are Merle Dandridge, as the female gorilla whose maternal instincts lead her to adopt the infant Tarzan from a shipwreck, and Chester Gregory II, as Terk, the sassy young gorilla who teaches Tarzan the simian ropes.
Even Jenn Gambatese as Jane, a Victorian miss taken up with book-learning until she sees Tarzan's loincloth, and Tim Jerome as her ditzily indulgent professor father, who's finally content to leave his daughter with the gorillas in the mist, can do nothing to help.
The fault, truly, is the basic idea. What next? "The Planet of the Apes, The Musical"?
The tree-surfing title character is not the only creature sailing through the air in "Tarzan," the giant, writhing green blob with music that opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Apes, flowers, moths, a snake, a leopard, a hut-size spider, two shipwrecked Victorians, an English botanist in her underwear: no sooner do such figures make their entrances in this restless adaptation of the 1999 Disney animated film than they find themselves pulled into some kind of airborne aerobics.
Almost everybody and everything swings in "Tarzan." Which is odd, since the show itself, to borrow from Duke Ellington's famous credo, definitely ain't got that swing.
"Tarzan" is the latest, and most insistently kinetic, offering from Disney Theatrical Productions, the Goliath that conquered little old Broadway by turning cartoon movies from its mother company into stage shows, including "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King." Directed (and largely designed) by Bob Crowley, with songs by Phil Collins and a book by David Henry Hwang, "Tarzan" feels as fidgety and attention-deficient as the toddlers who kept straying from their seats during the performance I saw.
Though much money (a reported $12 million to $15 million) and international research (with special emphasis on what a character in the show calls pendulation) has been lavished on "Tarzan," it somehow never acquired the art of focus. Momentous events — from fatal fights with evil animals to Freudian struggles between parents and children of two species — occur regularly in the course of this retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs's evergreen adventure novel. But any tension or excitement is routinely sabotaged by overkill and diffuseness.
No moment seems to carry more dramatic weight than any other. All instances of swinging (and they are countless) have been created equal. And Mr. Collins's soda-pop songs (expanded from those he wrote for the film) surface and evaporate more or less at random, like bubbles on a pond. The whole experience starts to feel like a super-deluxe day care center, equipped with lots of bungee cords and karaoke synthesizers, where kids can swing when they get tired of singing and vice versa.
The Disney film on which this "Tarzan" is based remains a charmer, notable for its vivid dimensional perspective and the chameleon virtuosity of its hero (given voice by Tony Goldwyn), who never met an animal he couldn't imitate. As several members of the movie's creative team observed in commentary that comes with the DVD version, it required animation to create the physically protean Tarzan of Burroughs's imagination. A live actor, it was suggested, could never begin to capture the ape-man's animal artistry.
Which goes to prove, employees of Disney, that you should be very careful what you say when a camera is running, even when the camera comes from the head office. For we now have conclusive evidence that the Disneyfied Tarzan does indeed flatten perversely when translated from two dimensions into three.
A few somersaults and cartwheels, plus hovering in a suspended harness, just don't convince you that this show's grown-up Tarzan (played by Josh Strickland, an "American Idol" contestant) can float like a butterfly, sting like a serpent, swing like an ape and love like a man.
Clearly at some point the show's creators decided that if they could just get the swinging part right, then everything else would fall into place. So they recruited Pichón Baldinu, the Argentine theater artist responsible for the Off Broadway hit "De La Guarda," an antic revue performed mostly in midair.
Mr. Baldinu may be the king of his area of specialization, but his skills have been drawn upon too generously. The opening scene, which portrays the shipwreck that brings baby Tarzan and his English parents to the African coast, finds mom, dad and child floating behind a watery scrim. Shortly thereafter, a host of vine-riding, hooting apes flies over the audience.
After that, I hate to say, the thrill is gone. And the moments when flying should take on wondrous emotional significance — like when the child Tarzan (alternately portrayed by Daniel Manche and Alex Rutherford) first learns to ride the wild vines — pass by almost unnoticed.
Like the Disney movie, the stage "Tarzan" emphasizes family-therapy dynamics and uplifting messages about misfits finding their places in the world. Tarzan has Oedipal issues with his grouchy adoptive ape father, Kerchak (Shuler Hensley, of the mighty baritone, a Tony winner for his Jud in "Oklahoma"), and adoring mother, Kala (Merle Dandridge).
Jane Porter (Jenn Gambatese), the plucky English botanist, must also declare her independence from her father, a doting and dithery Darwinian professor (Tim Jerome), while shedding her maidenly Victorian inhibitions. (Actually, Ms. Gambatese's Jane seems ready to strip down to her underwear and party from the moment she sets foot in the jungle, and she openly drools over Mr. Strickland's naked torso in the manner of Miss Hathaway ogling the muscular Jethro in "The Beverly Hillbillies.")
There are also an assortment of vignettes — featuring Kerchak, Kala and Tarzan's best friend, Terk (Chester Gregory II, the show's liveliest presence) — that could collectively be described as "Apes: They're Just Like Us!" This means that Kerchak and Kala have a syrupy reconciliation song that might have been lifted from "I Do! I Do!"
Mr. Collins's music and lyrics is the abrasively wiseguy tone of the script by Mr. Hwang ("M. Butterfly," the book for the Disney musical "Aida"). "Do you know how many apes are lost to underripe bananas?" asks Terk, trying to steal Tarzan's snack. "It's a silent epidemic." And the Latin-quoting Jane, upon realizing she is trapped in that spider's web, says, "O excrementum!"
Better, perhaps, to shift your attention from plot and dialogue to song and dance, except that it's often impossible to tell who's singing. (Even solos are coated with layers of disembodied offstage voices.) And Meryl Tankard's choreography is just a grounded version of Mr. Baldinu's aerial acrobatics.
So that leaves you with the visuals, and since Mr. Crowley is known to be a brilliant stage designer (his work includes the Lincoln Center "Carousel" and the Broadway-bound "Mary Poppins"), there should be plenty to divert the eye. Well, the apes — who suggest a cross between heavy-metal band refugees and Daryl Hannah in "The Clan of the Cave Bear" — are certainly novel looking. And those floating, singing flowers have a kind of "Fantasia" appeal.
But only Natasha Katz's lighting, especially the impressionist dots that suggest flocks of butterflies, summons a magical spirit. Otherwise all those layers and layers of green — walls of shredded cloth and scrims and floor coverings — start to induce claustrophobia after a while. No wonder the cast members spend so much time in the air. Even with a personal spotlight, no one has much of a chance of standing out in this oppressive jungle.
Orthopedists and chiropractors, take note: A golden career opportunity may have just arrived on Broadway.
In the new stage adaptation of Disney's animated film Tarzan (* * * out of four), agile young performers leap, flip and careen through stunts so relentlessly that you could get back pains just watching. Not infrequently, they accomplish these tasks while suspended from wires, adding to their difficulty.
In truth, I'm sure Disney already has the cast and its various body parts well covered.
Certainly, the House of Mickey Mouse did not stint on other aspects of this production, which opened Wednesday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. From Bob Crowiey's lush, fanciful scenic and costume design to its intricate uses of animation and projected images, Tarzan offers plenty of the flash considered catnip for tourists and casual fans.
Here, though, it's not empty flash. Not since I saw Elton John's Billy Elliot in London last year have I been as impressed with the uncynical warmth and charm of a kid-friendly musical. Like Elliot, Tarzan has a score by a British pop star, Phil Collins, who reintroduces his adult-contemporary hit You'll Be in My Heart and a few other tunes he wrote for Disney's Tarzan soundtrack. Most songs are new and blend mildly agreeable melodies and Afrocentric rhythms with the odd nod to Gilbert and Sullivan.
But it's David Henry Hwang's sprightly libretto that makes this Tarzan fly. Hwang, whose credits range from Disney's Aida to the Tony Award-winning drama M. Butterfly, contributes a script with a light but full heart, one that aims to amuse and enlighten children without patronizing them, or us.
Hwang slips in sly references to grown-up boys and girls liking each other, particularly after Tarzan's Jane arrives in the jungle and spots her ail-too-human hunk. But Tarzan ultimately promotes a broader sense of love and understanding, the kind that binds families together and unites people - and other primates, in this case - who would seem to have little in common.
The apes who take Tarzan in are winningly played by the warm-voiced Merle Dandridge and Shuler Hensley, whose skulking tribe leader reminded me at times of Rip Torn on The Larry Sanders Show.
In the title role, Josh Strickland gives an energetic and no doubt exhausting performance, and manages a goofy chemistry with Jenn Gambatese's veddy British Jane.
Watching these mammals cavort, I found myself thinking of a more highbrow show that hit Broadway recently, The Drowsy Chaperone, which takes a swipe at Disney while lamenting the sorry state of musical theater.
Tarzan is no more a major new musical than Chaperone is. But I'll take the former's good-natured exuberance over the latter's preening irony any day of the week.
Green, according to popular psychology, not only symbolizes nature and fertility but also is the easiest shade on the eye, known for its soothing, refreshing qualities. Color therapy may not be enough to quell the carping of musical theater traditionalists about the theme-park aesthetic Disney has brought to Broadway. But the dose of tranquility provided by Bob Crowley's lusciously verdant sets for "Tarzan" should prove medicinal to the naysayers as the entertainment empire's latest stage venture becomes a prosperous fixture at the Richard Rodgers.
The show may be more sophisticated in terms of its design and physical presentation than in its workmanlike musical craftsmanship, but an insipid score has not stopped other Disney tuners from finding popular acceptance in the marketplace.
Expanding on the five songs he penned for the 1999 animated movie, Phil Collins has written numbers that rarely develop or build the way good musical theater songs should, and there's no punchy act-one closer or stirring final anthem. But the pop score is tuneful, the lyrics serviceable and the pounding percussive rhythms occasionally exciting, which seems enough to ask in this vibrant package.
Drawing from Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic tale of the apeman and from the Mouse toon's screenplay, playwright David Henry Hwang, who did previous book duty on Disney's "Aida," has given the story the clean, uncomplicated lines necessary to communicate across the footlights and play to the broadest possible age range.
The emotional themes are universal ones -- parental loss, mother-son attachment, the quest for paternal approval, the struggle with identity, the discovery of love. There's also the eternal conundrum of man's relationship to the natural world.
Particularly in the second act, when most of these elements crescendo, Hwang has shaped a show that's kid-friendly but has sufficient warm sentimentality to move adults. It's an advantage that an anthropomorphized gorilla can channel human feeling far more persuasively than a teapot or a meerkat.
Directing for the first time here after undertaking design chores for Disney on "Aida" and "Mary Poppins," Crowley doesn't rival the flourish Julie Taymor brought to "The Lion King." But as an artist whose primary currency is visual, his contribution is no less significant. Crowley's choice to box in the stage with a single dominating color creates an intimate storybook effect, enhanced by Natasha Katz's magical, multihued lighting.
The show opens with an eventful but fluid sequence notable for its striking stage pictures and skillful manipulation of perspective. We watch a storm at sea and the near-drowning of a couple and their baby, tossed up on a beach in Africa; they enter the jungle, where a leopard with glowing red eyes kills both human parents and a baby gorilla, whose grieving mother adopts the orphaned human baby. It's a classically cruel Disney plot setup conveyed with imaginative narrative concision.
As gorillas appear and disappear at great speed out of Crowley's iridescent jungle foliage, it's also the first of many opportunities to admire the vine-swinging aerial work and bungee feats designed by Pichon Baldinu, co-founder of Argentine troupe De La Guarda.
Broadway newcomer Meryl Tankard's choreography is more impressive in the muscular gorilla ballet "Jungle Funk," set to Collins' propulsive drum beats, than elsewhere. But the show is not short on movement, its bracing physicality perhaps taking a cue from the Rodgers' previous tenant, "Movin' Out."
Act one establishes the relationship between young Tarzan (Alex Rutherford) and his adoptive ape family, in particular doting mother Kala (Merle Dandridge). Her mate, Kerchak (Shuler Hensley), is a gruff silverback gorilla fiercely protective of his tribe and wary of humans, causing him to ostracize Tarzan, who grows up in semi-exile with Kala. A wisecracking ghetto-hipster ape who seems to share Prince's stylist, Tarzan's buddy Terk (Chester Gregory II) teaches him the art of pendulation ("Swing-ing, man") in the spirited comic number "Who Better Than Me?"
Crowley fast-forwards through Tarzan's childhood in a charming shadow-play sequence to the jubilant "Son of Man," ushering in Josh Strickland as the young adult vine-swinger. He continues to puzzle over why he's different until British botanist Jane Porter (Jenn Gambatese) arrives in the jungle to shed some light.
One of the show's most elaborate visual sequences accompanies Jane's song "Waiting for This Moment," in which she wanders wide-eyed among undulating giant orchids as a ravishing moth flies overhead. As Jane gets caught in the web of a man-eating spider (its blobby, preschool-art conception is the only disappointing design element) and is rescued by Tarzan, Crowley's staging becomes a little chaotic.
The budding romance and Tarzan's crash course in the world of man are handled better. Crowley coaxes disarming work from lean, athletic Strickland, who conveys the innocence of a pure soul untainted by the savagery of civilized society. His lithe body movements deftly blend simian and human characteristics, and his assured vocals sidestep the overwrought exhibitionism that his "American Idol" apprenticeship might portend.
Channeling Kate Winslet, Gambatese has an expansive personality and a fine singing voice. Though it's unclear quite what Jane is doing on an aerial swing, her duet with Tarzan, "For the First Time," is a touching, full-bodied expression of their nascent love.
While the singers generally are overmiked and there's too much evidence of backing-track enhancement, casting across the board is solid. Hensley brings gravitas and a powerful baritone to Kerchak, while Dandridge's lovely Kala is a deeply sympathetic figure. During her tender reprise with Tarzan of Collins' Oscar-winning ballad "You'll Be in My Heart," only hardened cynics' tear ducts will stay dry.
Rutherford (alternating with Daniel Manche) makes a nimble and appealing preteen Tarzan, and he's a good physical match for Strickland. A standout Seaweed in "Hairspray," Gregory again shows a mighty talent for musical comedy, leading the exuberant scat number "Trashin' the Camp" at the start of act two. Tim Jerome and Donnie Keshawarz flesh out familiar Disney archetypes as, respectively, honorable Professor Porter and villainous expedition guide Mr. Clayton.
Unlike previous Disney shows "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "Aida," or the upcoming London import "Mary Poppins," this first new Mouse House musical to hit Gotham in six years was not honed in an out-of-town tryout. Instead, it was finessed during workshops and an extended preview period, exposing the gestating production directly to the sniping of a community that regards itself as the artistic gatekeepers of the Broadway musical.
To the credit of the creative team and Disney Theatrical chief Thomas Schumacher, the show has come together to deliver eye-popping spectacle and unexpected emotional involvement. "Tarzan" should be seeing green at the box office for some time to come.