‘Tarzan’ swings into Palo Alto in style

By Ande Jacobson

Palo Alto Players’ Tarzan is a Disney favorite suitable for all members of the family. The show is based on the 1999 animated film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Phil Collins and book by David Henry Hwang. The original Broadway show made its debut in 2006 and has delighted audiences worldwide since then. It’s a visually spectacular show with actors singing and swinging across the stage (and over the audience at times). In true Disney form, the heroes and villains loom large, and the story careens through a fairytale sequence of tragedy, joy, suspense, and finally, exuberant triumph in the familiar tale of two worlds colliding in the jungle.

The story is well-known. A young couple and their infant son get shipwrecked on the West African coast, and after securing their meager belongings in a tree house, the couple is killed by a leopard (Grace Hutton). Around the same time, Kerchak (Michael D. Reed) and Kala (Phaedra Tillery), the leader of a gorilla tribe and his mate celebrate their new offspring. That leopard gets around, and steals the baby gorilla. Distraught, Kala searches for her son but instead finds the human baby in the tree house. She rescues the baby, names him Tarzan, and takes him back to the gorilla community over strenuous objections by Kerchak. Young Tarzan (Oliver Copaken Yellin) is befriended by Young Terk (Jenika Fernando), a young gorilla who is also a little different (though still simian instead of human). The two become inseparable until Kerchak eventually banishes Tarzan from the tribe, terrified that because he is human, he will eventually hurt the gorillas. Kala sees herself as Tarzan’s mother and goes with him, much to Kerchak’s chagrin.

Time passes, and the adult Tarzan (Jimmy Mason) emerges. He’s still banished from the tribe, but he eventually partially wins Kerchak over when he saves the tribe from a fierce predator. Once back, he and the now adult Terk (Daniel Lloyd Pias) are again inseparable.

About this time, the famed expedition headed by Jane Porter (Jessica LaFever) and her father, Professor Porter (George Mauro), arrive with their guide, Mr. Clayton (Gary M. Giurbino). No Disney story is complete without a villain, and the one that arrives with the expedition is as evil as they come. Mayhem ensues, and the story wraps up in satisfying Disney fashion.

Director Patrick Klein and Nikolaj Sorensen form the scenic design team, and their jungle set is stunning. A functional net lattice sits just downstage of the cyclorama (cyc) representing trees and branches spanning the width of the stage. Tall trees are just downstage of the net up center, flanked by low greenery. On stage right and left, scaffolds are set with some greenery to approximate climbing trees. Rope vines hang mid stage, including a couple of longer swings that can be pulled to the side scaffolding. Greenery covers stairs to each side spot platform along the house walls, and both are used at various times during the performance. Center stage, a slide hidden by greenery angles down toward center stage from stage right. The tree house is atop a tall, moveable platform that is only present for a few scenes.

Choreographer Claire Alexander has created an exotic mixture of authentic ape-like movements combined with exciting leaps, swings, and rolls to mesmerize audience members young and old. The cast members show no fear as they sail across and above the stage with elegance and ease.

Klein’s direction is also exquisite, creating beautiful stage pictures of jungle life coming alive. The interactions are all there as well. In a nice touch to set the mood for the show, several cast members enter the stage in a preshow display of their gorilla community, playing, climbing, and grooming one another. These actors have mastered their climbing techniques, using hands and feet, fingers and toes with ease.

Reed and Tillery show tremendous range from loving partners as leaders of the tribe to adversaries when it comes to Tarzan’s acceptance along with everything in between. Both have grand presence and poignant stage chemistry. They also both have solid vocal chops, so much so, that Brandie Larkin’s sound plot sometimes has them over-miked. Reed especially doesn’t need the electronic help.

Yellin and Fernando make a nice juvenile pair of pals, playing their way through life in the jungle. Fernando’s movements are fluid, and Yellin’s are plausibly clumsy to exaggerate the differences between a young gorilla and a young human. Vocally, they aren’t quite matched. Fernando has a slightly more polished voice, while Yellin’s vocal quality is a little rough, and he’s slightly pitchy.

Mason plays an inspired adult Tarzan. His athleticism is impressive as he scampers up the scaffold trees, swings across the stage via the rope vines, and gracefully leaps from various platforms. He and Pias seamlessly pick up the odd human-gorilla friendship where Yellin and Fernando leave off. Their banter is believable, and Pias’ vocals are haunting. Mason and Hutton both shine in the battle between Tarzan and the leopard that sparks Tarzan’s precarious return to the tribe.

Both Mason and Yellin have strong chemistry with Tillery, showing the love the orphan human has for his gorilla mother.

Mason and LaFever also work well together. Their initial meeting is tender with a touch of humor, and the way the Tarzan – Jane relationship grows is quite moving. LaFever’s singing tends toward vibrato, and her diction is occasionally a little mushy, perhaps owing to the dialect used for her role, but her character more than makes up for any vocal deficiencies. Mauro adds a nice comedic element as the professor, and he plays nicely off of LaFever.

Music director Nick Kenrick, although not credited as an instrumentalist in the program, directs from his keyboard. The slightly reduced, but powerful band of music makers is situated behind the cyc. This able combo cleanly masters some very challenging music ranging from tranquil native melodies in the reeds, to driving, full ensemble numbers.

Patricia Tyler’s costumes combined with Gwyneth Price Panos’ hair and make-up designs are effective and very interesting, making sharp distinctions between humans and jungle fauna. The gorilla “fur” is slightly abstract and appealing melding hair, make-up, and costume to reflect a range of color and texture contrasted against the jungle flora. The more prominent the gorilla, the more colorful their coat.

Ed Hunter’s lighting design is clean and effective, covering entrances from the house, and from all levels of the stage. At times ominous portending danger, it adds important emphasis to the unfolding drama.

The overall sound balance is a little hot, particularly for the more powerful vocalists, and on opening night at least, a few cues on some less powerful singers were a little late. Hopefully these minor glitches will smooth out before long.

Despite a few minor hiccups, this production provides an enjoyable spectacle that will enthrall the entire family. The show is pure Disney, pure imagination, and a pure delight.

What:  Tarzan

Where:  Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA

When:  Continues Thursdays through Sundays through 23 September 2018

See Palo Alto Players or call (650)329-0891 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photo credits: Joyce Goldschmid)

Tarzan (Special Edition) – Disney Animated Film
Tarzan: The Broadway Musical (Cast Recording)
Tarzan – The Broadway Musical (Vocal Selections)

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