In the Swing of Things: Disney’s ‘Tarzan the Musical’ at Berkeley Playhouse

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“Animals are born who they are, accept it, and that is that. They live with greater peace than people do.”
– Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why people hate story of Peter Pan so much. Maybe it’s ubiquity the title character after more than a century (he may or may not be public domain); maybe it’s umpteenth classic story about some little White boy (even though story is, was, and always has actually been about Wendy, not Peter); or maybe it’s the fact that certain coming-of-age stories don’t resonate with some people after they’ve, y’know, come of age. Whatever the case, I still see life in the story. It may be tough to think of know ways to interpret it, but I still see its relevance. I can’t say the same for the story of Tarzan.

The main problem with Tarzan – both the character and the century-plus-old multi-media franchise he spawned – is that, like most Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, it’s about how oh-so-great it is to be a great White westerner who conquers a “savage” native land, ruling its inhabitants and taking a native woman as his own. This is true not only of the Tarzan books, in which Africans are actual apes, but also the Barsoom/Mars series (a Confederate conquers the “red-skinned” Martians), the Pellucidar series (black-skinned “ape-men”), the Venus series (the Chinese), the Moon series (communists), and practically everything else to which the author added his name. It’s an idea that was outmoded even when Burroughs started writing.

So what value is there in teaching this story to kids? Simple: when you strip away all of the ugly racism, the Tarzan stories at least still function as a parable of humanity’s relationship with nature. Although the stories clearly illustrate the author’s poor opinions of African natives, it’s quite possible he was also influenced by Darwin’s writing, thus creating a tale in which the differences between man and ape are, debatably, more superficial than anything else. From this perspective, it’s a story about cultural refinement being no way to gauge intelligence, about how damage to the natural habitat having repercussions reaching far and wide, and about how family is wherever an orphan happens to find it.

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Pre-show stage by Mark Mendelson. Photo by Me.

And as we all know: dead parents and self-discovery are Disney’s bread ‘n butter, so it was only a matter of time before they adapted Tarzan at the tail-end of the 1990s’ famous “Disney Renaissance”. One David Henry Hwang stage adaptation later and I’m back at the Berkeley Playhouse to watch the actors get into the swing of things. (I’m so sorry.)

I’ll forego my usual plot synopsis as it’s safe to say that everyone knows the story of Tarzan by now, even if just through cultural osmosis. This puts my focus on the show itself, which was actually well done, in spite of what ever made the Playhouse incredibly stuffy when I saw it opening night.

Given the aforementioned history and legacy of the source material, it was an interesting choice for this production to cast a Black woman, Marissa Rudd, as Jane. As the character meant to represent all that is good about “civilization,” the choice is a great counter to Burroughs’ pro-imperialist themes that doesn’t feel the least bit forced. The fact that Rudd is a really good actor with a beautiful voice doesn’t hurt either.

Adam Donovan does an adequate job as the adult Tarzan. He’s a competent actor with a fine voice, but he occasionally gets overshadowed by the swing-for-the-rafters voices of his co-stars. In addition to Rudd’s turn as Jane, the other show-stealers would have to be Marisol Urbano as Tarzan’s adoptive ape mother Kala and R. Martin Newton as adoptive father Kerchak. The two have a wonderful chemistry together, and Urbano in particular can be outright heartbreaking in her scenes with Young Tarzan (played opening night by young Mystic Inscho).

Given that there are about 30 cast members – some of the youth members rotate roles – it’s a credit to director Elizabeth McKoy that not only does everyone tend to look busy most of the time, but they also seem to be having fun. Many of the show’s highlights involve just watching the level of spectacle McKoy and her cast & crew pull off. When Donovan first swings across the stage as Tarzan, it got a large applause from the audience. Further acrobatic feats – from aerial silk work in the middle of the audience to complicated dance numbers choreographed by Staci Arriaga – make the already-large theatre seem almost endless. Though there are a few slow moments (“You’ll Be in My Heart” is sung well, but is unusually confined to the center-stage) and the 2 ½-hour felt stifling with the theatre’s heat, a show featuring a tumbling young ape (played opening night by Jaina Manning) and a scene-stealing leopard (Cathrine DeLos Santos) is one McKoy can chalk up as a win.

And though it would take too long to single out everyone in the 30-large cast, I have to applaud the work of the tech crew who put the show together. When you think about it, costuming has to fill two complex requirements: it’s has to both look good and it has to be functional for the performers. Costumer Lisa Danz does a fine job of this, giving all the humans clothes that closely resemble those of their animated counterparts, whilst dressing all the animals in a way that kinda suggests frequent Disney stage-collaborator Julie Taymor. And they all seem to move well. Set designer Mark Mendelson does an equally fine job with his elaborate set, which extends into many parts of the audience. The vines and mangoes appear to be growing out of the stage toward us without being intrusive. Lighting designer Michael Oesch and sound designer Lyle Barrere are equally skilled at creating an ocean tempest, a tranquil waterfall, and an ambient jungle setting filled with wildlife and the occasional gunshot. Fine work, one and all.

There really isn’t much one can do to improve the story of Tarzan, but the Disney version – particularly as written by Hwang – actually works in the story’s favor. For once, the Mouse House’s tendency to oversimplify classic stories is what strips away this story’s more horrendous social undertones. Those older versions still exist for those curious to find them, but this is the kind of Tarzan kids should see first: relatable; enjoyable; and an impressive spectacle to behold live and in-person.

GRADE:                B-

Disney’s Tarzan: The Stage Musical is scheduled to run until the 13th of August at the Berkeley Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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