I’ll keep this short and sweet:
I saw the Disney movie Tarzan when it first hit theaters back in, oh, 1999, thought it was so-so, but had heard incredible things about the stage production, so I was interested in going. And as a fan of the Pittsburgh Musical Theatre’s Facebook page, I was seeing photos and videos that were just too enticing for me to ignore. So…Saturday night I saw the show at the Byham Theatre.
Now that we have that little nugget of backstory out of the way, let’s get to the review:
1. The songs by Phil Collins were familiar and sing-a-longable, including You’ll Be In My Heart, Son of Man, strangers Like me and Two Worlds. If you’re unfamiliar with the names of songs, trust me, the minute they start, you’ll be like oh, I know that one! The cast served them up like a hearty dinner, wrapping amazing vocals around the pop tunes that somehow made them more lush, more full, more satisfying. Alysha Watson as Kala (Tarzan’s ape mother) blew her songs out of the water. She was a a powerhouse dynamo. Her rendition of You’ll Be In My Heart brought tears to my eyes. Billy Mason as Kerchak (Tarzan’s ape father) was as equally a wonderful, commanding presence as his character’s wife.
2. The costumes by Kim Brown, make up by Christopher Patrick and wigs by Ricky Gindlesberger and Christopher Patrick brought the world alive like nothing else. Don’t expect anyone to come out in full gorilla suit. Just the thought of it would have pulled you completely out of the story; the sight would have probably made you laugh aloud, and all seriousness of the story would have been decimated. But Brown, Patrick and Gindlesberger were smart. They didn’t do replicas, they made up their actors to be evocative of the animal or bug or other creature they were playing. So expect lots of dreadlocks, lots of wild man hairdos, and costumes reminiscent of something you’d find in that other Disney broadway smash, The Lion King.
3. The story is exactly like the one in Disney’s movie. Tarzan’s parents are killed, Kerchak and Kala’s baby is taken by a leopard. Kala adopts Tarzan, he is raised by the apes, much to Kerchak’s dismay, and then suddenly a boat docks with Jane, her father and Clayton, a deceitful guy played with a Southern drawl as funny as is facial expressions. Tarzan and Jane fall in love, but it’s not all happy skies from there. Questions of loyalty, family, trust and sacrifice come into play. Sounds like heavy stuff for a very kid-heavy audience, but I assure you, the laughs were plentiful last night (mostly by Jeremy Czarniak as Jane’s father) and the kids were on the edge of their seats.
4. Director Colleen Petrucci scored another success with her cast with this one. From the ensemble (featuring such familiar faces as Katie Ross, who we last saw in Cinderella, Marnie Quick, Jessica Ortiz, who was Liesl in Sound of Music, Gregg Messmer and Davis Wayne) to the secondary characters such as The Leopard (Vinnie Smith), Jane’s father and Snipes (Michael Sullivan), to the two main leads played by David and Kathlene Toole (yes, they’re married in real life), everyone gave performances totally committed, full of confidence, and ferocious to say the least. These actors didn’t get overwhelmed by the set or costumes. They shined brightly throughout them, the clear gems in the setting. Other notable performances: Nick Cortazzo, Mathew Fedorek and Brecken Farrell who played, respectively, Young Terk and Young Tarzan; Eddie Henry as adult Terk; and I’m sorry, but I missed the name of the girl who was the darker colored butterfly during the scene when Jane is exploring. Her dancing was sublime, her jetes a thing of beauty, her stretches and toe points exact and exquisite.
Final thoughts: scenic designer Todd Nonn is a genius, music director Deana Muro (who does so much with the CLO) is awesome and Colleen Petrucci once again looked amazing in her black ensemble punctuated with white pearls. This is a show not to be missed, especially if you’re looking for the perfect way to celebrate the amazing bond between mother and child. Any mother and child.