REVIEW: "Tarzan, The Stage Musical"— (OCCT) Orange County Children's Theatre
Updated: Jan 25
"Teach me to speak the language of men!" — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes
OCCT’s "Tarzan, The Stage Musical," based on the 1999 Walt Disney animated film, ”Tarzan,” is the latest, and most kinetic offering from the esteemed children’s theatrical company, who is presently celebrating their 50th successful year of operation. The stellar production recently ran from January 10th through 19th and was presented at the Historic Huntington Beach Auditorium and Bell Tower at Huntington Beach High School.
Orange County Children’s Theatre prides itself on a canon of enveloping children from all social and economic backgrounds into their programs, dedicated to training young novices in the crafts and skills required for careers in the theatre, with paramount importance placed on family values and the development of each child’s self-esteem.
Disney Theatrical Productions, the goliath that conquered Broadway by turning animated movies into stage shows, including "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," opened its offspring stage production on Broadway in 2006 and was originally directed and largely designed by Bob Crowley, with songs by Phil Collins and a book by David Henry Hwang. Momentous events — from fatal fights with evil animals to Freudian struggles between parents and children of different species — occur regularly in the course of this retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1912 evergreen adventure novel, “Tarzan of the Apes.”
The Disney film on which this "Tarzan" is based remains a charmer of course, notable for its vivid dimensional perspective and the chameleon virtuosity of its hero, who never met an animal he couldn't tame or imitate. It required animation to create the physically protean Tarzan of Burroughs's imagination. A live actor, it was suggested at the time, could never begin to capture the ape-man's animal artistry. When the child Tarzan first learns to ride the wild vines, for instance, the animation takes on a wondrously emotional significance.
But Disney finally gave in to demand, and like the Disney movie, the stage "Tarzan," which stars here a nubile Joseph Taylor Nelson, emphasizes family-therapy dynamics and uplifting messages about misfits finding their places in the world. Directed by Kaitlyn Tice (“Seussical the Musical,” “High School Musical,” “Shrek the Musical,” “Annie,”), with footwork, dance moves and routines by resident choreographer Taylor Windle, the Tarzan on stage also has Oedipal issues with his grouchy adoptive ape father, Kerchak (Josiah Gwaltney) and adoring mother, Kala (Lexie Rocha, alternating with Katelyn Duran).
Clad in a loin cloth and swinging carefree through the jungle, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan character has been a staple of all sorts of pop culture, including books, films and television specials in the last century, as well as the source of numerous parodies. But maybe none of the interpretations have been more warmly received than the Hwang stage musical bejeweled with pop songs by Phil Collins.
In a sequence lasting only moments, an English couple (Dave Elliott and Judy Jaramillo) survive a shipwreck in early 20th century and wash up on the coast of Africa. They are later killed by a leopard, but their son, still an infant, survives and is found by the nurturing Kala, whose own infant was carried off by that same leopard, and who takes the child in as her own son. This does not sit well with Kerchak, who is also leader of the tribe, and who warns that the boy is different from them and will lead to trouble and grief. Nonetheless, Kala raises Tarzan until Kerchak expels him from the community for fashioning a spear that Kerchak believes is to harm gorillas.
As Tarzan grows into a young man (played by Jameson Hollar, alternating with Adrianna McGrath), he is taught by his gorilla best friend (a young Terk — Devyn Dilts, alternating with Amiah Robinett) to survive and is eventually accepted by the other animals. From somersaults to cartwheels, the verdant Tarzan seems to be able to float like a butterfly, sting like a serpent, and swing better than any other ape before long.
Years pass, and Tarzan finds himself attracted to a young naturalist, Jane Porter (Ava Howe, alternating with understudy Danica Hemmens), a plucky, English botanist with maidenly Victorian inhibitions, who he accidentally meets in the jungle. The innocent Jane has come to the west coast of Africa as part of an expedition in search of gorillas, along with her father, a doting and dithery Darwinian professor (Conner Noson). Taking a shine to the young inquisitive Tarzan, she openly stares at the strapping powerhouse assiduously (picture the other Miss Jane staring at Jethro in "The Beverly Hillbillies), and suddenly jungle sparks fly.
As Tarzan learns he is indeed human, he contemplates moving away to be with Jane. What Tarzan doesn’t realize is that there are a few unscrupulous types in Jane’s entourage who plan to harm him, primarily, the arrogant and treacherous mercenary, Clayton (Chloe Saavedra), who was hired to guide the Porters on their jungle quest. Intrigued by the ape-man as well as by the gorillas, previously unseen by Europeans, Jane unwittingly leads Tarzan into a trap set by Clayton to bring chained gorillas back to England.
Mr. Gwaltney was a strong and compelling force as the fearless leader Kerchak, but he also showed Kerchak’s vulnerable side in his loving relationship with Kala, who was a reassuring force of maternal comfort for Tarzan. Kala also was an empowering equal to her mate, Kerchak. In addition, Ethan Ng was noteworthy for his lissome, balletic portrayal of the deadly leopard.
With vocal direction by Art Ortiz, there was an assortment of vignettes — among them, were those featuring Kerchak, Kala and now an older Terk (Sean Hawkins, the show's liveliest presence, and who has succeeded in stealing this musical) — that could collectively be described as "Apes: They're Just Like Us!" Kerchak and Kala even have a syrupy reconciliation song (“Sure as Sun Turns to Moon”) that might have been lifted from the musical, "I Do! I Do!" But audiences will most likely remember the Phil Collins hit song best, “You’ll Be In My Heart” from radio play and also the 90’s movie.
In contrast to the treacle of Mr. Collins's music and lyrics was the cavalier tone of the script by Mr. Hwang ("M. Butterfly," the book for the Disney musical "Aida"). "Do you know how many apes are lost to under-ripe bananas?" asks Terk, trying to steal Tarzan's snack. "It's a silent epidemic." And the Latin-quoting Jane, upon realizing she is almost trapped in a spider's web, says, "O excrementum!" The apes — who to some might suggest a cross between heavy-metal band refugees and Daryl Hannah in "The Clan of the Cave Bear" — are certainly novel looking with their painted faces and headdresses. And those floating, singing flowers have a kind of "Fantasia" appeal as well.
One of the real strengths of the production was the technical work. Rachel Gooch, Mike Gooch and Vee Riem’s jungle set (led by Roger Mahaffey) was a marvelous cluster of ingenious hammerings awash in a sea of green and brown hues and colorful materials that gives the impression of a jungle of high, thick trees, handsomely complimented by Costume Designer Joanne Booth’s fine gorilla-suggested costumes that adorned performers, while blending gracefully with Ms. Windle’s fluid, elegant choreography. Props by Heather Jaramillo, Brittany Hollar and Angela Royval also enhanced the production significantly. Under the astute direction of Ms. Tice, the simian characters appeared dignified and poignant in their familial roles.
Handling close to two dozen songs, music vocal director Ortiz juggled them all, including a first-rate “For the First Time” with Ms. Hemmens (at this performance), and in a lovely, nuanced rendition of the aforementioned “You’ll Be in My Heart,” featuring Kala and Tarzan. Produced by Kandy Nelson and Melissa Aragon (who also handles hair and makeup), the show’s stage manager was Ashley Turnbaugh, and OCCT President, Debbi Parrott, along with Vice-President Bonnie Saavedra helmed the production overall.
Telegrammer Co-Choreographers were Stephanie Dien and Sami Walker and mentored child actors Tessa Aziz, Kensy Cuellar, Johanna Dash, Alexia Duran, Logan Eddington, Bailey Hoppe, Mark Moniak and Kendall Serna in an adorable pre-show segment, plus a post-intermission intro into Act II.
Featured Apes were Katia Carbajal, Makeda Gwaltney, Danica Hemmens, Daphne Moyes, Ethan Ng, Seven Perrin and Bailey Takakawa. Ape Kids are Colton Dorfman, Lily Jacobs, Sarah Moniak and Stella Payne-Wilds. Featured Expeditioners were Hannah Clair, Peyton Eich, Dave Elliott, Nicole Faust, Judy Jaramillo, Trinity Jaramillo and Lilli Parrott. Clayton’s Crew was portrayed by Brenden Benard, Jadon Gwaltney, Brady Hollar and Huntington Tran.
The Jungle Animals were depicted by Brenden Benard, Hannah Clair, Peyton Eich, Dave Elliott, Nicole Faust, Jadon Gwaltney, Brady Hollar, Amalia Linda Jaramillo, Judy Jaramillo, Trinity Jaramillo, Conner Noson, Ethan Ng, Lilli Parrott, Bailey Takakawa, Chloe Saavedra and Huntington Tran. Spider: Lily Jacobs. Flowers are Katia Carbajal, Hannah Clair, Peyton Eich, Nicole Faust, Makeda Gwaltney, Danica Hemmens, Amalia Linda Jaramillo, Judy Jaramillo, Trinity Jaramillo, Adrianna McGrath, Sarah Moniak, Daphne Moyes, Lilli Parrott, Stella Payne-Wilds, Amiah Robinett and Bailey Takakawa.
While the story can be emotional, the production never loses its heartfelt whimsy. Although Tarzan is the center of the story, this production feels more like an ensemble piece, focusing heavily on family and loyalty. Even the ensemble of apes move as one, almost tribal at times with realistic ape-like movements. The feeling of family among the cast is also palpable. Audiences expected to be whisked away to the jungles of Africa within this magical, family-friendly production, and were definitely not disappointed in this very affectionate adaptation for the stage.
OCCT's next show will be Frozen Jr., beginning May 7th and performed at Rose Center Theater in Westminster. For additional information and tickets on upcoming shows, please go to: www.occt.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo credits: Karey Riem