Fumble in the Jungle: Disney's Tame 'Tarzan'

Jenn Gambatese, as Jane, gives a reading lesson to the ape man, played by Josh Strickland, in Disney's
Jenn Gambatese, as Jane, gives a reading lesson to the ape man, played by Josh Strickland, in Disney's "Tarzan," based on the studio's 1999 animated feature. (By Joan Marcus -- Boneau/bryan-brown Via Associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

NEW YORK You Tarzan. Me looking at watch.

Disney's gone back to the jungle -- the scene of its greatest stage success, "The Lion King" -- for an ape's-eye view of "Tarzan," a Broadway extension of the company's 1999 animated movie. The show, which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, has gorillas in midair, a potential teenybopper idol in loincloth and Phil Collins as show-tune guy.

What it doesn't have much of is drama, and so after you've finished admiring director-designer Bob Crowley's bouncing primates and curtains of green streamers -- it's as if the stage is wrapped in a hula skirt -- you wait for some other appeal to the senses. And then wait some more. Neither a rash of Collins's sound-alike pop ditties nor David Henry Hwang's libretto offers anything like a stirring crescendo. "Tarzan" seems content to mark time with shimmering landscapes and simian calisthenics.

And where the musicalized story of the ape man is concerned, it don't mean a thing if it's just got those swings.

You might say the production's fate hangs by a rope. "Tarzan" employs an "aerial designer": Pichon Baldinu, co-founder of De La Guarda, creators of the high-flying off-Broadway hit "Villa Villa." He puts actors costumed as subtropical flora and fauna in harnesses and dangles them above us. The acrobatics are fine, but anyone who's seen Cirque du Soleil in action might regard the stunt work as less than heart-stopping.

The little ones in the audience will fidget during the leaden dialogue scenes: "Nothing in the jungle has proven more savage than human greed," says the show's standard-issue old-limey-in-safari-wear. They'll settle down, though, any time the gorillas buckle up and lift off. (For the record, Tarzan and his knuckle-dragging crew tend to cling to solitary ropes. They don't attempt much vine-to-vine transport.)

But the core audience might be a slightly older demographic: girls who once swooned over Simba and his "Circle of Life" menagerie and who now, at 13 or 14, are ready for a more adult crush. "Tarzan" submits for their consideration one Josh Strickland, playing a slender, wiry, sweet-faced variation of the ape man. The image clearly has undergone a makeover since the heyday of Johnny Weissmuller or even television's Ron Ely. (If Ely even qualifies for a heyday.)

Strickland's look is more out of the Justin Guarini mold -- in fact, the 22-year-old was bounced from "American Idol" a few seasons back. It's hard to tell what kind of career is ahead of him, because in this outing he's called on mostly to act with his torso. Strickland's crown of unruly blond dreadlocks obscures his expression much of the time, and the gawky, apelike mannerisms he's required to flash for his intruding fellow Homo sapiens get old fast. Still, he's clearly meant to be the show's designated babe -- sorry, Jane -- and young girls might go gaga the way they do for that taciturn, wild-looking boy in trigonometry class.

As set designer, Crowley has a glorious eye, a talent he's demonstrated on projects as diverse as "The History Boys" and Disney's "Aida." As for his skills as a director: Did we mention that he designs a heck of a set?

No one who put together this production seems to have noticed that almost nothing happens in Act 1. The show's first hour is a slog through the story of Tarzan's orphaning and rescue by a "tribe" of gorillas. As is sometimes the case in an underdeveloped musical, the opening minutes are the most scrupulously detailed: The shipwreck that immerses baby Tarzan and his parents off the African coast is bewitchingly staged. (A later duet under the stars, for Tarzan and Jenn Gambatese's Jane, is a similar exercise in technical wizardry.)

Crowley, Hwang and Collins have decided that "Tarzan" is essentially an adoption story, with a hero whose identity crisis has to do with whether he's really meant for a life of picking nits out of relatives' fur. Little insight is offered, however, that would help an audience understand what Tarzan desires (besides Jane) or why we would wring our hands over whether he gets it. Not until the end of Act 1, when he meets Jane, does grown-up Tarzan -- he's played by a child, Daniel Manche, for much of the hour -- even get a song of his own.

The plot becomes more urgent in the second act, with the emergence of a villain, the expedition leader (Donnie Keshawarz) who brings Jane and her father (Timothy Jerome) to gorilla territory. The properly British Jane somehow manages to teach Tarzan to speak English with an American accent, but who's really paying attention? The mechanics all feel wan, perfunctory. Even the war of nerves between Tarzan and his gorilla dad -- the great Shuler Hensley, in a harsh, thankless role -- goes nowhere. Weakest of all are the lame attempts at humor, assigned mostly to Chester Gregory II, a talented actor who's compelled to deliver unfunny-sidekick asides.

Occasionally, a familiar Collins tune from the Disney movie crops up: "You'll Be in My Heart," for example, is sung twice. Other numbers that Collins has added for Broadway just sort of trail off, as they might on the radio.

Such is the fly-by wispiness of "Tarzan," a production with pretty surfaces that bungees unremarkably into thin air.

Tarzan, music and lyrics by Phil Collins, book by David Henry Hwang. Direction, sets and costumes by Bob Crowley. Choreography, Meryl Tankard; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, John Shivers; special creatures, Ivo Coveney; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; vocal arrangements, Paul Bogaev. With Merle Dandridge, Alex Rutherford. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., New York. Call 212-307-4747 or visit .

© 2006 The Washington Post Company