REVIEW: "Tarzan, The Stage Musical"— (OCCT) Orange County Children's Theatre

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"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 tri