“Tarzan” opens with a spectacular recreation of a late 19th century shipwreck off the coast of West Africa. A man and his wife survive but rapidly fall victim to jungle perils, leaving their infant son to be found by Kala, an ape whose own baby has died.
Despite dire warnings from Kerchak, the silverback ape leading the gorilla troop, Kala raises the baby as her own and names him Tarzan (“White Skin”).
The boy learns jungle lore, enjoys the simian friendship of Terk the gorilla, and yearns for approval from his gorilla father, Kerchak, whose own parents died at the hands of human hunters and remains distrustful despite Kala’s love for her adopted son.
The passage of years brings a party of British scientists, led by the amiable Professor Porter, wishing to study the social nature of gorillas. Tarzan falls in love with Porter’s rambunctious daughter, Jane —— but Kerchak’s long-feared danger arrives in the person of their guide Clayton, driven by greed, knowing that gorillas are worth ¬£500 each in England.
Daebreon Poiema brings genuine warmth to the role of Kala; while Marc Cedric Smith’s basso profundo, as the supremely authoritative Kerchak, won him a standing ovation opening night. Jude Mason is happily endearing as the boy Tarzan learning about vine-swinging from Lawrence Cummings, who brings a welcome feistiness to Terk.
Devin Archer, in fine voice as the adult Tarzan, succeeds admirably in a difficult, acrobatic role without crossing into self-parody. Katie DeShan finds the exact balance as Jane Porter, making her both properly demure yet high-spirited.
As Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, Joey D’Auria amusingly channels Nigel Bruce, the loveably bumbling Doctor Watson of the 1940s Sherlock Holmes films. And Brian Abraham succeeded so well as the evil Clayton he won appreciative plaudits and boos at curtain call.
The vigorous expertise of both children and adult ensembles filled the stage, on the boards and on the vines, with breathtaking dynamism reflecting the finesse of aerial choreographer Paul Rubin, while the orchestra conducted by Nick Petrillo kept the proceedings lively.
The stage and auditorium were bathed with stunning, magnificent three-dimensional jungle effects by projection designer Jonathan Infante. Costumer Sharell Martin, makeup designer Denice Paxton and choreographer Linda Love allow actors to stylishly impersonate knuckle-walking gorillas, tossing old time gorilla suits into a cocked hat.
Rufus Bonds, Jr. directs the show with stylish and skillful charm.
In the 1950s, my father would drop everything on a Saturday afternoon to gather us kids in the living room and watch an old Tarzan movie, featuring Johnny Weissmuller and a lot of gorilla suits, on our Sears’ SilverTone television. The plots were interchangeable, taken from the quarry mined by Edgar Rice Burroughs for his many “Tarzan” novels.
Excitement was generated nevertheless in knowing that hunters from “civilization” set to poach or destroy animal life, steal sacred jewels, or upset the pristine perfection of primitive nature would all get their comeuppance from the Lord of the Jungle.
I also learned that the word, “Ungawa!” had about 16 different meanings.
The Disneyfied Tarzan is bigger, brighter and certainly more musical than the old black-and-white MGM films. The story is more touchy-feely. Tarzan wonders if other creatures looking like him exist.
Then he meets Jane. Borrowing from an old opera tradition putting the tenor at odds with the bass, who stands between him and the soprano, Kerchak’s distrust keeps the two apart.
As finely mounted as the play is, it’s too derivative of other Disney franchises. Clayton the guide, instead of being a usurper intent on keeping Tarzan ignorant of his true family heritage, becomes a mere variation on Gaston the hunter in “Beauty and the Beast.”
The imposing character of Kershak the ape is simply a retread of the magisterial Mufasa in “The Lion King.”
Considering Disney’s long tradition of creating animated movies chockful of timeless melodies such as “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf,” “A Whole New World” and “Be Our Guest,” it’s astonishing that the “Tarzan” score is so absolutely forgettable, without a tune to hum on your way home —— or whistle while you work.
A song is reprised in a show to make a dramatic statement. Tarzan has three reprises ——that’s simply creative laziness, a theatrical felony.
One more thing bothers me.
In the show, the boy Tarzan twice attempts the distinctive Tarzan yell, teasing the audience into expecting it full blown from the adult Tarzan. It never happens. Perhaps Devin Archer felt too self-conscious.
Johnny Weissmuller is gone. So where’s Carol Burnett when you need her?
“Tarzan” runs through Aug. 9 at the Redondo Beach Center for Performing Arts, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Call (714) 589-2770 ext. 1, between 11-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, Noon-6 p.m. Saturday, or www.3dtshows.com.