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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at at the Richard Rodgers Theater, New York

By David Lefkowitz


(Richard Rodgers Theater)

Could there be a more apt representation of the heights Tarzan reaches--and the depths to which it swoops--than the rope from which its titular teen swings? No sooner does Bob Crowley, the Disney musical’s set designer, costume designer AND director, make a butterfly flutter through the air with the greatest of ease, than he nooses himself with poor blocking, hyper-stimulation and silly mistakes. For example, he creates an absolutely stunning waterfall effect just by having an Ailey-type dancer swirl a ribbon that’s followed by other ribbons billowing downward to the stage floor. However, two minutes later, Tarzan’s simian surrogate father (Shuler Hensley) hurls a spear into what we presume is the bottom of these rapids. Surely, even the shallowest riverbed would respond with a "splash" or a nearly noiseless "plip-plunk;" what the audience hears instead is a spell-wrecking THUD. The thuds continue, proverbially, all night long.

With a set that sometimes dazzles us even more than we’d expect from the musical’s reported $15 million budget, Tarzan opens with a drowning that actually outdoes the spectacular swimming-pool effect that netted Crowley a Design Tony for another half-baked Disney tuner, Aida. But no sooner have we gasped along with the non-swimmers than we see a couple of "apes" (i.e., actors who have patches of black fur and colorful chalk marks on their chests) rescuing a baby that has survived the shipwreck. Said infant is so obviously a rubber doll straight out of Toys R Us, we fear we’ve been fished out of spectacular waters only to be plunged into camp. When the tyke then fends off a wild animal by peeing on it, we know we’ve crossed the line from what probably worked onscreen (I haven’t seen the animated original) to "throw it all up and see what sticks" desperation onstage.

What does stick are a couple of Phil Collins songs that show him having a better affinity for Broadway-style tunesmithing than countrymate Elton John (even though, strangely, Collins’ Oscar-winning hit from the Tarzan movie, "You’ll Be In My Heart," feels like generic balladry in this context). Also registering is Hensley, who imbues ape leader Kerchuk with a gravitas that, in a less noisy adaptation, would render his heavily foreshadowed demise moving rather than merely inevitable.

Charm and real humor can’t help but get vinestrangled in a Tarzan this overwhelmed by flash and bang (so many guns go off, you’d think the setting was a rainforest in Inishmore). Josh Strickland is a capable enough Tarzan, his lean muscularity probably more physically right for a tree climber than Johnny Weissmuller’s bulk ever was, but his magnetism is lost on me. Jenn Gambatese, so adorably funny in All Shook Up, pulls the same goofy faces here, but good luck to anyone noticing them past the first two rows of the Richard Rodgers Theater. As for Chester Gregory II, who plays Tarzan’s gorilla friend Terk, let’s just say his wisecracking skills are a few bananas short of a split.

Unlike the Greystoke film, in which Tarzan leaves the jungle for a brief, eye-opening sojourn in English society that only sends him hurrying back to the trees, this version stays jungle-bound throughout and telescopes the threat of "civilization" into one trigger-happy bad guy. As such, David Henry Hwang’s book can’t turn this material into anything more than a silly love story with a peremptory nod to the ecology. Sometimes, it don’t mean a thing even if it do got that swing.


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