From the program itself, audiences attending TARZAN presented by Milburn Stone Theatre (MST) at Cecil College in North East, MD, learn that this production is a stage musical based on the Disney film. That eliminates immediately any thoughts of seeing any of the edgy social commentary provided by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his original novel, “Tarzan of the Apes”. Disney made their film for children, and the closest the film comes to social commentary is to talk about the cruelty and greed associated with capturing animals for sale to European zoos. David Henry Hwang followed suit as he wrote the book for TARZAN.
Even though character development and social issue depth are not obviously portrayed, the MST production of TARZAN provides in spades the flora and fauna of the jungle. The primitive beauty is conveyed by soft, patchy lighting on earth toned ribbons hung from above. Doing this allowed Bambi Johnson, the director and choreographer, to move her jungle actors easily and dynamically around the stage. Fixing the explorers’ camp upstage also gave a feeling of comparison between the fluidity of jungle life versus the staid approach to life brought by the English. Johnson’s direction of the various appearances of the “ape ensemble” together with “ape children” quickly brings the audience to appreciate the playfulness and familial intimacy now so well documented about nuclear ape groups. Sincere compliments to everyone who played an ape in this evening of moving, rolling, playing and fighting all in the well known hunched stance of an ape with the knuckles on the ground. Physicality was so important to the visual nature of this production. Johnson did a fine job with her cast of apes physically. Johnson worked very effectively also with ZFX, Inc. the company that provided the impressive flying effects.
Niki Tart, musical director, combined the recorded music and the actors to obtain clarity and meaning from their songs as they are leaping, dancing, swinging and, yes, even rollerblading, around the stage. This particular set of Phil Collins music keeps the plot moving with rather trite lyrics and a couple of hummable melodies. However, between Tart and Terry Edwards, the sound designer, the usually negating effects of the MST sound system were circumvented, and all the singing was audible. Hopefully this can be repeated throughout the season to give audiences a full hearing of lyric poetry.
Speaking of the visual nature easily brings the audience to recognition of the outstanding dance and acrobatic work done by the “flora & fauna ensemble”. Johnson worked with children of all ages to bring the various flowers and basic garden fauna to life. One dance sequence contained an unnamed (but very talented!!) dancer/gymnast who used the fabric ribbons to provide a cirque du soleil quality to the ensemble work. Clever also was the snake one needs to watch carefully to capture the genius of her movements. While not seen often, Dann Combs portrayed a most convincing predator, Sabor, the leopard.
Costuming was highly pictorial as well. While the costuming itself was taken from the Broadway production, the amount of time and effort that went into making so many and so varied costumes types should be commended. Congrats to Brenda Kinzinger and Joyce Williams.
With all of these comments about the production itself, the actors who “peopled” this cast found themselves surrounded with color, sound, and movement. To capture attention away from those aspects, the cast needed to insert themselves into the story and indeed they did. Young Drake Lupus cavorted and sang as the young Tarzan while Frankie Rowles took us with him as he moved effortlessly from the graceful but lumbering ape to the erect “man” he wished to become. When faced with emotional dilemmas, Rowles conveyed the transitions with aplomb. I am looking forward to seeing him in another MST production which will better showcase his multiple talents. Carli Smith, as Jane, played the prim and proper Englishwoman almost to the nth degree. Smith portrayed Jane with a combination of fascination with her new botanical discoveries, a mutual concern with her father for apes and a growing appreciation of how her cultural environment misused and abused animals. While the production is not written to allow emotional development, Smith was quite capable of showing the audience a woman who came to the jungle with one set of beliefs and changed to quite another.
MST puts on stage a masterful, visual production which audiences of all ages will enjoy. It is not deep but there is so much breadth and spectacle, one can simply sit back and enjoy the jungle ride.
TARZAN, The Stage Musical
Book by David Henry Hwang
Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins
Directed and Choreographed by Bambi Johnson
August 29 – September 7, 2014
Milburn Stone Theatre
One Seahawk Drive
North East, MD 21901
Box Office: 410-287-1037