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Hanging vines, while exotically attractive and well suited to the transportation of ape-men in loincloths, have a nasty tendency to choke the life out of the trees that support them. And so it goes in Tarzan, the big, green, surprisingly inert new Disney show at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Corseted by its lianas, this misconceived musical seems perpetually short of breath.
It is not hard to imagine what might have drawn the apprentice sorcerers of Disney Theatrical Productions to Tarzan, whose plot combines the narrative elements of two of the company’s time-tested smashes: The Lion King (young African hero comes of age, takes father’s place as animal leader) and Beauty and the Beast (bookish daughter of ineffectual codger falls for sensitive wild thing, over interference from boorish he-man). True, Disney’s 1999 film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel is not one of the cartoon studio’s best recent efforts; The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame—both of which are also in development as stage musicals—boast superior stories and scores, whereas Tarzan’s appeal lies primarily in the kinetic flash of its animation. But with the accomplished spectacularist Bob Crowley in charge of the show’s sets and costumes, and De La Guarda’s Pichn Baldinu fashioning its aerial design, this version seemed poised to translate the movie’s visual charge to the stage.
This is precisely what happens in the musical’s dazzling opening sequence, the most impressive display of Broadway stagecraft since Julie Taymor traced “The Circle of Life” in The Lion King. In quick succession, the audience witnesses the shipwreck, underwater rescue and beaching of the infant Tarzan’s unlucky parents, who will soon be murdered by a panther. But when the show moves into the supposedly dense jungle that is its main locale, it suddenly finds itself in limbo: a bare stage surrounded on three sides by hanging swaths of bright green cloth, like the inside of a huge rectangular hula skirt. This expansive clearing is somehow meant to suggest the overgrown vegetation of Western Africa, but you can’t see the jungle for the lack of trees.
It seems likely that this emptiness is necessitated by safety concerns related to the musical’s use of those aforementioned vines, which are employed throughout the show by Tarzan as well as by the show’s unconvincing approximation of apes: bare-chested actors in furry chaps, with heavy-metal haircuts and dollops of war paint smeared on their bodies, attached to swinging ropes by undisguised harnesses. Now they travel across the stage like so many hairy pendulums; now they swing out above the first few rows of the theater, like 3-D effects in a 1950s novelty film.
Such unexpectedly dinky stunts, unfortunately, are nearly all that Tarzan has to offer. Under difficult conditions, some of the actors manage impressive work: The lissome Josh Strickland, making a notable Broadway debut as our untamed hero, exhibits a convincingly monkeyish physical vocabulary, and sings with clarity and power; Chester Gregory II, as his smart-ass best friend, has a knockout soul voice and a charming comic presence. Natasha Katz’s shimmering lighting also merits mention, as does Meryl Tankard’s inventive choreography.
Otherwise, Tarzan is left to wither on the vine. Phil Collins’s workmanlike pop-rock score, heavy on percussion and synthesizers, is light on melodic and lyrical inspiration, not to mention dramatic functionality. (Several of the songs, including the opening number, are sung from offstage.) And David Henry Hwang’s book lacks quickness and focus. An hour into the musical, for instance, the spunky Jane (Jenn Gambatese) wanders onstage without any introduction, and begins reciting the Latin names of plants she sees. Who is this woman, the audience wonders, and why is she pretending to have an English accent? First-time director Crowley surrounds her with performers costumed as colorful flora, but then literally leaves them hanging; for the number’s dramatic climax, the show resorts to a ridiculous giant spider that seems on loan from a haunted-house ride at Coney Island. As Jane perceptively exclaims at this point: “Oh, excrementum!”
In hiring Crowley to stage as well as design the show, Disney appears to be trying to replicate Julie Taymor’s success in The Lion King, which precedes Tarzan as pride precedes the fall. But Taymor was already a skilled dramatic director in 1997; Crowley, a beginner, knows only how to begin. Harnessed to its gimmickry and suspended by vines alone, Tarzan swings, swings, swings again—and strikes out.
Tarzan. Richard Rodgers Theatre (see Broadway). Music and lyrics by Phil Collins. Book by David Henry Hwang. Dir. Bob Crowley. With Josh Strickland, Jenn Gambatese.