A century ago, English novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs created a character who wore very few clothes and spoke even fewer words. “Tarzan of The Apes” swung into print in 1912, has appeared in every entertainment format since then and shows no signs of coming out of the jungle any time soon.
One of his most recent incarnations was on Broadway where “Tarzan, The Stage Musical” opened in 2006. Based on the 1999 Disney movie, the tale of the orphaned English lord raised by “giant apes” began a two-week run Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich.
Since 1912, here have been many, many, many variations on the Tarzan story, this one was set to music by Phil Collins and, for the most part, reportedly follows Burroughs’ original plotline. Possibly the reason it is not billed as “Disney’s Tarzan, The Stage Musical” is that it falls into Disney’s “Aida” and “The Little Mermaid” category, i.e. not very theatrically successful.
The Barn production does not attempt to salvage the extremely familiar material with a lot of pyrotechnics or aerial gymnastics. It just delivers it as it is and, for the most part, that works as well as anything.
Director Eric Parker gets his actors on, lets them do their thing, and gets them off, resulting in a two-hour (including intermission) production that is more entertaining because it is not dragged out.
The unit set serves as the jungle, with side camps for the ill-fated Greystokes and the more fortunate Porters. Knotted ropes at each side of the proscenium are ready for energetic swinging, and a multi-level green “mountain” is the central location around and up-and-down which Tarzan and his fellow apes fight and play.
Barn choreographer Jamey Grisham sheds his dancing shoes — in fact any shoes and most of his clothing — to play the title character. Barn veteran Penelope Alex turns in another very sympathetic portrayal as Kala, Tarzan’s adopted apemom. Patrick Hunter is Kerchak, leader of the apes who is definitely against keeping the “evil” baby; Hannah Eakin is Jane Porter, British horticulturist who loses her heart (and her clothes) to the jungle; and Josh Meredith is Terk, Tarzan’s best buddy and the designated comedian of the piece.
Grisham’s Tarzan mixes muscles with dreds and a disarming grin to present a nature boy who maintains his sense of humor throughout. It is a charming characterization although his “yell” needs some work. His “discovery” of Jane is definitely “scratch and sniff” but in a gently humorous way. Eakin has a warm soprano which, even so, can’t do much to save Collins’ tepid ballads.
Hunter is properly intimidating as the ferocious leader whose roar hides a rather soft heart. Alex echoes every mother who chooses her child over the strictures of her tribe and makes the gorilla universally maternal. Meredith’s Terk (and that rhymes with …) is indeed the class clown whose bravado hides a quaking backbone. He makes the most of his brash exterior and his asides (“Lose the yell, kid”) are welcome.
Ricky Phillips is Clayton, part of the Porter safari and the resident bad guy, a role he dispatches with hand-wringing glee. Also evil is the murderous, red-eyed leopard (Jordan Moody, who never gets upright) who is a key killer in the plot. High on his dinner menu is Tarzan, who chased him off as a child. As Young Tarzan, Floridian Donny Graves jumps, swings and flips with the enthusiasm of an athletic pre-teen and never looses his cool.
The remaining ensemble members are gorillas, huffing and grunting in knuckle-dragging representations of great apes. Costume designer Michael Wilson Morgan has opted to ignore hairy outfits and go instead with black tops and legging covered with what appear to be dozens and dozens of string mops (minus the handles) dyed black, red and blue (except for Kerchak who is black and white). The mops bobble and flow in a perpetual salute to Tarzan and The Great Apes.
“TARZAN The Stage Musical” plays through Aug. 4 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barnthatre.com.