The title is Tarzan, and the wild child with the rat-tail dreadlocks and leather briefs is ostensibly the subject of Disney’s lavish but ragged new stage musical, based on the lithe animated film of 1999. But the chest-beating jungle man himself seems strangely absent from this clumsy spectacle, and never moreso than when he’s onstage.
As played by the endearingly scrawny and utterly innocuous Josh Strickland, this show’s Tarzan comes off less like a strapping nature boy raised by apes than as a sweetly mellow beach bum on an endless vacation. Yes, he does the famous rebel yell and swoops over the audience in dandy aerial sequences designed by De La Guarda’s Pichón Baldinu. But I’m with Jane (Jenn Gambatese), who punctuates her first glimpse of the airborne apeman with a loud “ah-choo!” This Tarzan is something to sneeze at.
So is the show, which labors mightily in the shadow of The Lion King’s stunning stagecraft, and which handily demonstrates the wide gulf between a talented designer, which Bob Crowley is, and a visionary director, which he is not. The spellbinding opening uses Baldinu’s ropes (and Natasha Katz’s deliciously rich lighting) to depict a shipwreck from vantage points we’re not used to seeing onstage: underwater, for one, and looking down on a beachfront. But once we’re in jungle-land, the scenic invention effectively halts, as we stare at four walls of green fringe and a gaping trap-hole.
We may fleetingly hope that the lengthy scene change that glosses the years between young Tarzan (a feral, ginger-haired Daniel Manche, who alternates with Alex Rutherford) and Strickland’s young-man Tarzan is going to reveal a mind-blowing new design. Alas, no; it’s the rain-forest cell block again, into which Strickland hurls himself, dabbles briefly with a fire stick, then promptly disappears so his adoptive gorilla parents can have a heart-to-heart. Shuler Hensley and Merle Dandridge bring as much dignity as they can to these risible parts, though they’re saddled with moss-like gorilla suits that reveal midriffs scarred with smudgy body paint.
As the show’s meager comic relief, the purported wiseacre Terk, Chester Gregory II adds to his similarly silly monkey suit a spiky purple do that wouldn’t have been out of place in Prince’s back-up band circa 1987. He does get to deliver the show’s most rousing lyrics: a scat solo for the lively second act opener “Trashin’ the Camp” (or is that “Campin’ the Trash”?), in which he and his fellow apes throw an impromptu set-strike party. Another fine musical number is similarly wordless: A drum-and-didgeridoo romp early in the first act showcases the invigorating mix of Meryl Tankard’s athletic choreography with Baldinu’s rope tricks. But when the characters open their mouths to sing, forget about it; composer/lyricist Phil Collins lathers on the clichés and pumps up the volume, making fellow popster Elton John’s cheesy theater music sound richly nuanced by comparison.
A show like this may be critic-proof—its advance sales are upwards of $20 million, roughly equivalent to its budget—but on the evidence of the matinee I attended, it seems to be pretty kid-resistant, as well. The restless youngster behind me offered a helpful running commentary, peppered with some practical staging questions, such as, “How did the lion thingy climb up there?” (He was referring to an eerie leopard figure who menaces the hero and his family, though to my eyes it looked more like a cross between a jackal and a frog.) My junior colleague, it must be said, couldn’t stay on topic during the second act’s merciless parade of mid-tempo ballads, or the tedious dialogue scenes between lovestruck Jane and her kindly explorer father (Tim Jerome). For the record, the book is by David Henry Hwang; we hope he doesn’t spend the money all in one place.
Disney Theatricals certainly has, and so must all parents of small children with even the slightest sense of family duty (unless they can persuade the tykes to wait till Mary Poppins alights in the fall). The rest of us do well to swing wide of this jumble in the jungle.
Music and lyrics by Phil Collins
Book by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Bob Crowley
At the Richard Rodgers Theatre