Up And Swinging

Up And Swinging

The ape-man makes a spectacle for today’s audiences

Over the past two decades, no corporation has done for the musical than Disney. With its animated films such as “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid,” they have not merely preserved the form but attracted generations of kids to it. Now, with “Tarzan,” Disney takes what has been filmic and creates an entirely new dimension in Broadway entertainment.

This should come as no surprise, but while “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” are more in the traditional vein “Tarzan,” breaks new ground, firmly moving the Broadway musical into another form altogether—something between a circus, a variety show, and a traditional plotted musical. It’s not something that American audiences are overly familiar with, though it is the type of entertainment the French call “spectacle.” And it’s fascinating, often breathtakingly beautiful and while the story and the plot are somewhat simplistic, the show is an amazing achievement of stagecraft, creative vision, and pure theatrical artistry.

For this reason, I found “Tarzan” fascinating from beginning to end. However, to approach “Tarzan” as a conventional musical is to tempt disappointment. The score by Phil Collins isn’t exactly breathtaking, and the book by David Henry Hwang is burdened by overlong exposition and too obvious, overworked humor. These are, however, hallmarks of the Disney style, and even with those shortcomings this is a beautiful, sumptuous production with rich colors, dazzling movement, and a constant motion that can easily sweep one away into its world and overcome the weaknesses of the structure.

Like “The Lion King” which is at its best when it conjures the veldt through Julie Taymor’s puppetry, “Tarzan” is at its strongest when the aerial design by Pichón Baldinu works with the lighting, choreography, and costumes to almost overwhelm the audience with visual richness. Combined with the infectious energy of the cast, the result is more Cirque du Soleil than “My Fair Lady” to be sure, but it also represents one trend in theater towards more visual, elaborate, and dazzling productions.

And that’s not merely to justify the $110 top ticket price or because it’s now possible to have a dozen actors dressed as apes bounding from the rafters and bringing a jungle to life. It has a lot to do with the fact that over the past 50 years television and movies have helped create audiences that respond more to visual than verbal storytelling. What the designers of “Tarzan” have done is to integrate the limitless possibilities of animated film with advances in theater technology—and ever more athletic performers—to create a new branch of the musical form. It’s intriguing not just because it is so beautiful to look at but because it points up the new demands placed on delivering narrative in today’s world.

While many of the adults I’ve spoken to who have seen “Tarzan” have been disappointed because it is not more like language-driven shows like, say, “The Pajama Game,” the kids I’ve talked to who have seen the show and that I observed at the performance I saw were spellbound. They are totally conditioned to taking in information primarily visually, and much of the story of “Tarzan” is told that way.

To a traditionalist, the form may feel fractured even disjointed. The way to appreciate this show is simply to sit back and let it happen to you. Of course, that doesn’t wholly forgive some of the leaden lyrics or the heavy scenes, but their importance is diminished in the context of the broader, more holistic, storytelling. Whatever one thinks of the quality of the music and the book, you have to hand it to Disney for understanding how film has impacted storytelling-and the boldness to interpret cinematic storytelling in the Broadway environment. Effectively, they have harnessed the familiar narrative style to what is an emerging trend for live, family entertainment. And while it’s new to some extent, it follows the oldest show biz rule in the book-give ‘em what they want.

In addition to Baldinu, credit goes to Meryl Tankard for choreography and Bob Crowley for direction. They have created the magic that sustains the evening. Interesting enough, though they are all very strong, the company is less important as individual star turns—another Disney trademark. Still Josh Strickland is wonderful as older Tarzan and Jenn Gambatese is terrific as Jane. Chester Gregory II plays the obligatory older and wisecracking best friend—another Disney staple—and Shuler Hensley is the older, wiser Kerchak. They and the rest of the company have fine, if often over-amplified, voices, and the athleticism of the company is awe-inspiring.

Theater is a dynamic art form; innovation ought not be rejected simply because they are unfamiliar or because they do not reflect our personal ideas of what is right or wrong, particularly in such a subjective format. Disney’s financial success is certainly one argument in its favor, but it fortunately goes deeper than that, for that success would not have been achieved had the company not found a way to reach people with story, which is the essential power of theater.

Remember, there was a time when “Oklahoma” and the works of Stephen Sondheim were seen as challenging the way musicals “should” be. Don’t worry, change takes time, and along the way you can still revel in “Sweeney Todd” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” and even “The Wedding Singer” if you want a traditional musical. As for changing the form to reflect a new audience, with “Tarzan,” no doubt, time will tell.