Story: An infant boy, shipwrecked in the early 20th century with his parents off the west coast of Africa, is left alone after the boy’s parents are killed by a leopard. A nurturing gorilla named Kala, whose own infant is carried off by the same leopard, finds the boy and takes care of him as her own child.
This does not sit well with Kerchak, her mate and leader of the tribe, who warns that the boy is different from them and will lead to trouble and grief. Nonetheless, Kala raises Tarzan until Kerchak expels him from the community for fashioning a spear that Kerchak believes is to harm gorillas.
Years pass, and the young adult Tarzan finds himself attracted to a young English naturalist, Jane Porter, exploring the African jungle with her father and a mercenary guide named Clayton. Intrigued by the ape-man as well as by the gorillas, previously unseen by Europeans, Jane unwittingly leads Tarzan into a trap set by Clayton to bring chained gorillas back to England.
Highlights: Tarzan of the Apes by American novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs first appeared in book form exactly one century ago, in 1914. Since that time, it’s become an icon in American literature through movie and TV adaptations, comic books and even a Disney animated version in 1999. The original story and the Disney cartoon formed the basis of the Broadway musical that opened in 2006 and closed in 2007.
The Muny’s debut presentation is a technical delight sure to entertain children with a live-action version of the Disney film.
Other Info: There are children’s shows and there are family shows, and Tarzan is more in the former category. While some stories can appeal to all ages, the musical version of Tarzan can be tedious and unremarkable, particularly in the simplistic book by David Henry Hwang and the sometimes plodding lyrics by Phil Collins. Truth be told, though, at the end of the two-hour show plenty of wide-eyed children were obviously enthralled with what they’d seen and heard.
Collins’ music is very good, actually, with a lively, pop bounce to it and also some affecting lyrics, especially on the Oscar-winning number, You’ll Be in My Heart, and the beautiful ballad, Sure As Sun Turns to Moon, the former sung by Kala to Tarzan and the latter a lovely and ironic duet by Kala and Kerchak.
The real strength of The Muny’s production is the technical work. The suitably jungle-gym set designed by Timothy Mackabee is a marvelous cluster of ropes and planks awash in a sea of green hues that gives the impression of a jungle of high, thick trees, handsomely illuminated by Seth Jackson’s lighting.
Costume designer Leon Dobkowski's finely designed gorilla costumes that adorn performers blends gracefully with Chris Bailey's fluid, elegant choreography. Both are critically important, because costumes and choreography set the table for the story of the human boy who grew up in a community of gorillas. Under the astute direction of John Tartaglia, the simian characters are dignified and poignant in their familial roles.
Quentin Earl Darrington is a strong and compelling force as the fearless leader Kerchak, but he can also show Kerchak’s vulnerable side in his loving relationship with Kala. Darrington possesses a dynamic singing voice as well, something he shares with Katie Thompson, whose Kala is a reassuring force of maternal comfort for Tarzan and an equal to Kerchak.
Spencer Jones and Nathaniel Mahone delight the audience as the young Tarzan and his pal Terk, respectively. Gregory Haney plays the adult Terk as a wise-cracking colleague.
In the title role, Nicholas Rodriguez looks the part of the fit and muscular Tarzan and has an easy-going style that works effectively in Tartaglia’s version. Kate Rockwell is easy on the eyes as Jane, the progressive Englishwoman who spars with the villainous Clayton over the gorillas’ rights.
Local favorites Ken Page and Michael James Reed portray Jane’s loving father, Professor Porter and the loutish guide Clayton, respectively, although they can’t do a lot with Hwang’s stilted and flat dialogue. Alexandra Doyle is noteworthy for her lissome, balletic portrayal of the deadly leopard.
Kids on opening night seemed to be having a jolly good time, which is right proper for a Muny ‘children’s show.’ Some of us, though, just don’t swing with this Tarzan.
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through July 2
Tickets: Free to $80; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos by Eric Woosley and Philip Hamer