“Hasn’t this been a most surprising afternoon!” ‘Jane’ breezes incredulously in Disney’s “Tarzan, The Musical”; yes, it is a bit eyebrow-raising to think they’ve made a musical about this legendary “Lord of the jungle”; yet that’s also what makes it so flat-out incredible! Now, Southern California’s award-winning “3-D Theatricals” once again scores a major theatrical ‘coup d’état’ with this, the Southern California regional premiere of the Tony nominated “Tarzan–The Musical”! The hit stage adaptation of Disney’s 1999 animated film (itself based on Edgar Rice Burroughs classic tale,) the book is by multiple award-winning playwright Henry David Hwang and features the electrifying contemporary score by Phil Collins. A thoroughly charming show for all ages, after a successful run last month at the landmark “Plummer Auditorium” in Fullerton California, “Tarzan” has made its highly anticipated move to “The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center” in Redondo Beach, California (SPOILER ALERT: Once your jaw drops to the floor from sheer amazement, it’s sure to stay there right up until the final curtain!)
Featuring the Oscar and Golden Globe “Best Original Song” winner, “You’ll Be In My Heart”, Collins’ score builds upon and has been expanded from the original film subtly moving the action along every bit as much as the dialogue does. This dynamic (make that downright physical) retelling of the ‘origin’ story of one of popular literature’s most enduring characters opens after a shipwreck off the coast of West Africa. As played out in the opening number, “Two Worlds”, washed up on the shore, a young English couple and their infant son try to survive for a time in the jungle. However, upon being suddenly orphaned, the child is taken in and raised by a tribe of gorillas–principally, “Kala” a kindly she-gorilla who is grieving the recent loss of her own baby from the same leopard responsible for the couple’s demise. Now called “Tarzan”, the lad grows to manhood yearning to discover the reason for his own uniqueness…until one fateful day when he encounters a jungle expedition—and most especially, one breath-taking young lady named “Jane Porter”. “Son Of Man” is a rousing early group effort as young Tarzan takes his first tentative steps toward learning how to swing on a vine (which, as any classic movie lover already knows, is something of his trademark!) “On this journey that you’re making, there’ll be answers that you’ll seek, and it’s you who’ll climb the mountain; it’s you who’ll reach the peak,” his gorilla “family” all sing to him, and by the end of the number he essentially ‘grows up’ before our eyes. Quite a lot happens in the second act, but it too flies swiftly by, ultimately leading to an emotional climax: “You are the discovery of discoveries,” Jane’s father “Professor Porter” tells him at the story’s emotional peak; “A totally good man!”
Directed by Rufus Bonds, Jr., here is an extremely fast-moving production, which Bonds and his vivacious cast of 34 brilliantly talented performers (including a children’s ensemble) further enliven by always making good use of “The Redondo Beach Center’s” ample auditorium space. Inextricably intertwined with his direction are the technical elements that make the truly astounding feats of theatrical prestidigitation possible. From the opening “shipwreck” of Tarzan’s parents (including an eye-popping live ‘overhead shot’ as they literally walk “down” a beach once they’ve been washed ashore,) to the pounce of a jaguar who’s caught in mid-flight, the ingenious use of stage “flying” add immensely to the production’s considerable “wow” equation, (all courtesy of the virtuoso work by “Flight-sequence Choreographer”, Paul Rubin.) Not to be overlooked either are the incredible technical contributions made by Stephen Gifford’s colorful and near-kaleidoscopic scenic design, which is fully complimented by Jean Yves Tessier’s expansive and equally multi-hued lighting design (—which also features a number of sprawling light projections throughout the theater to convey the feeling of a large, looming jungle.) Even the opening ‘show drop’ conjures up the mythos and mystique of “deepest, darkest, Africa”! Moreover, Sharell Martin’s animal costume designs wisely eschew any overly-complex or limiting “Planet Of The Apes” make-up or head-dresses, in favor of a simpler, more symbolic “look”, hence a far more efficacious one.
Ebullient and athletic, Linda Love Simmons’ choreography also adds immeasurably to the production’s over-all success, similarly propelling the action forward at a delightfully frenetic pace. Incorporating loads of airborne and gymnastic ‘magic” (–for that’s precisely what it amounts to–) Simmons builds upon traditional African dances while integrating plenty of snappy modern moves along with some majestic balletic turns, ‘tour en l’airs’ and ‘grands jeteˊs’ as well. The big dance interlude, “Jungle Funk” early in the first act (which ends with young Tarzan’s initial meeting with “Terk”, who will become his best Gorilla playmate) is part gymnastic meet-part modern dance piece and all nothing short of astonishing! She also garners great results in using several of her dancers to “play” unusual characters, such as a ribbon dancer to represent a flowing stream, or the garden of “living” flowers and other related fauna when we first encounter “Jane”.
Devin Archer does an extraordinary job in the title role, while Katie DeShan joins him as the bookish but beautiful “Jane”; both are strong personalities in their own right with commendably forceful voices; throughout their on-stage pairing they work terrifically together. Although we don’t actually see him until mid-way through Act One, Archer is certainly worth waiting for. Debuting in the closing phrases of the buoyant “Son Of Man”, he makes his impression quickly and indelibly, going on to enthrall with his parts in “Different” (when he first lays eyes on Jane) then in “Everything I am” and the reprises of “You’ll Be In My Heart” and “Sure As Sun Turns To Moon” (both poignant dual accomplishments with his ‘mother’ “Kala”.) Likewise, Ms. DeShan’s “Jane” delivers a graceful and exceedingly affable interpretation of this classic heroine from the time we are introduced to her–right before one over-sized blossom attempts to make her its lunch. That’s when Tarzan swings in and saves the day, and the historic meeting of Jungle-man and his future mate takes place. Sharing many memorable musical moments, Archer and DeShan particularly shine with the up-beat “Strangers Like Me” as both find that their mutual curiosity about the other is fast becoming mutual attraction, which culminates in a stunning mid-air Pas-de-Deux! Subsequently, their romantic duet, “For The First Time”, in which each, singing apart but in sumptuous harmony, finally realizes the depths of their feelings. Indeed, this number ranks as a bona fide showstopper and one of the best musical sequences in a show full of them!
Daebreon Poiema, remembered for her inspired performance in 3-D Theatrical’s comparably lauded “Ragtime” is the wise and kindly Mother Gorilla, “Kala”. Poiema finds the honesty and humanity in what easily could be just another “Disney” cartoon caricature. She excels right from square one with the iconic “You‘ll Be In My Heart”, sung this time as a dreamy lullaby, then shortly after with “Sure As Sun Turns To Moon”–her duet with “Chief Gorilla” “Kerchak”; in fact, this latter offering is a lovely light-hearted intermezzo that showcases both of their voices wonderfully. Later, when she takes the now-grown Tarzan back to the treehouse where she found him, is genuinely touching, culminating in a stirring reprise of “You’ll Be In My Heart” as Tarzan, contemplating leaving his Jungle home to return to England with his newfound lady-love, tries to assure her he’ll always be there in spirit (“Just look over your shoulder” he sings, “I will still be there.”) Marc Cedric Smith also boasts an impressive presence with a rich, deep, commanding voice as the primary “Silver-back”–and head of their gorilla tribe, “Kerchak’. His too, is a refreshingly “human’ and empathetic portrayal navigating the tricky “mixed feelings” the character has regarding this non-furry little ‘stranger’ Kala has brought in to their midst. His solo, “No Other Way” pulsates with power as he attempts to dispel the boy from their midst, while still affording him much-needed “fatherly” advice on how to survive (“The safest parts of the jungle are the darkest” he warns.)
Young Jude Mason as the “fledgling” Tarzan also more than proves he’s a gold-medal contender in his own right, carrying out some pretty prodigious moves; after all, this is an exceptionally ‘physical’ role, and Mason demonstrates tremendous agility and adeptness with everything he’s called upon to achieve—and does it with a polish and confidence many a Broadway veteran would envy. Then there’s Lawrence Cummings who in like manner elevates the “Awesome” factor (already fairly high for this production) with his portrayal of Tarzan’s Gorilla pal, “Terk”. The best friend we all wish we had, he himself does a remarkable job furnishing some big laughs, lightening the mood when needed. What’s more, whether singing or dancing Cummings completely dazzles, displaying his outstanding vocal talents with “Who Better Than Me”, then verifying how capable he is in the dance department with both the raucous first act “Jungle Funk” and again leading the second act opener “Trashing The Camp”. In addition, Joey D’Auria renders first-rate support as Jane’s blustery British father, “Professor Porter”. As with the rest of her “crew”, he doesn’t appear until after intermission, but provides an important sympathetic presence nonetheless. Not a hunter as seen in previous versions of the story, he’s played as a rather gentle, refined man of science—not to mention an infinitely supportive father who gets some of the best comic lines (“I’ve never been able to lie to you Daddy” Jane says sheepishly at one point; “No, but it’s a testament to your character that you keep on trying,” he replies.) He and his daughter are there in Africa to study—not destroy. This in turn makes Brian Abraham’s trigger-happy “guide”, “Clayton” all the more menacing and sinister as the show’s villain. His secret plan is to trap Tarzan (along with a few gorillas and other hapless denizens of the jungle) to sell to a circus (–once Jane and her father are properly “dispensed” with of course.) For this reason, given recent headlines, the themes suggested in this subplot are disquietingly timely, hitting their marks with added bite—probably more now than when the show opened last month for its Fullerton run.
You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to ‘meet’ this “Tarzan”; once you have, you’ll never forget it—and it’s even better ‘by the beach’ (“The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center” that is!) Having opened Saturday, August 1st, “Tarzan, The Musical” will play through Sunday, August 9th, 2015 at “The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center” located at 1935 E. Manhattan Blvd. in Redondo Beach, CA. Remaining show-times are Friday, August 7 at 8:00 pm, Saturday, August 8 at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, with a matinée at 2:00 pm on Sunday August 9th, 2015. Tickets are available by calling 714 589-2770 ext. 1 between the hours of 11:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday; 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm Saturdays; by logging onto: www.3dtheatricals.org , or at the Theater Box Office starting two hours prior to performances (Group and Student discounts are also available.)
Production Stills By Isaac James Creative (www.IsaacJamesCreative.com) Courtesy Of Michael Sterling & Associates (www.msapr.net) and “3-D Theatricals”; Special Thanks To Michael Sterling, T.J. Dawson, Gretchen Dawson, Daniel Dawson, And To The Cast And Crew Of “3-D Theatricals” “Tarzan, The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.