How a fine-tuned "Tarzan" now wows theater fans in the Netherlands
Jim Hill talks about some of the tweaks and fixes
that were made to the first international production of Disney Theatrical's
newest musical. Which debuted at Holland's Circustheatre back on April
Broadway insiders were said to be stunned when they heard
about these reviews:
"Visual effects truly out of this world ... A worthy
successor to ' The Lion King' " -- Metro
"Spectacular aerial acrobatics, rocking pop songs
and true passion are but a few of the ingredients of (this) dynamic musical"
"Larger than its American predecessor ... A true jaw-dropper"
-- NRC Handelsbad
"Pulling out all the stops to create a true spectacle"
Wait a minute. These were really-for-real critics saying
nice things about "Tarzan"
? The musical that the New York Times
called '... a writhing green blob with music' ? How is that possible
Well, first of all, this is the first
international production of this new Disney musical that we're talking
about here. More importantly, this is a version of the show that's been
tweaked and plussed by both "Tarzan" 's original creative team as well
as by theatrical producer and media tycoon Joop
van den Ende.
Mind you, it was easy for Joop's staff to work together
with Disney Theatrical
on the fine-tuning of "Tarzan"'s first international production. After
all, van den Ende's company, Stage
Entertainment and the Mouse had been co-producing shows for more than
a decade now. And between the two of them, they've mounted six Disney musicals
and entertained tens of millions of people all over Europe.
Which was why -- long before the original Broadway production
of "Tarzan" had actually begun previewing at the Richard
Rodgers Theatre -- Disney Theatrical was inviting van den Ende's creative
team to come over to the U.S. So that they could then get some sense of
the sort of show that Bob Crowley and his co-horts were trying to put together.
So back in early 2006, Joop's troupe flew over to New
York City and visited with the "Tarzan" cast as they rehearsed on Stage
2 at Steiner
Studios in the old Brooklyn
Navy Yard. Van den Ende's people watched as aerial designer Pichon
Baldinu put the performers through their paces, swinging and dangling from
harnesses while high above the soundstage floor.
Joop's creative team also reviewed many of the concepts
that Disney Theatrical had originally considered for "Tarzan." And among
these was staging this new musical inside of a vast open arena a la Cirque
de Soleil. With the actors often performing directly over the heads
of the audience.
Recognizing that the Circustheatre (I.E. The 1800-seat
venue where Stage Entertainment would be presenting the European premiere
of "Tarzan") would actually lend itself better to the original concept
of the show, Joop's staff decided that their version of this new Disney
musical would feature much more flying over the audience. More moments
when the cast would swing straight out over the heads of those people seated
in the front orchestra section.
And seeing as Disney Theatrical had cast "American Idol"
finalist Josh Strickland in the title role of their new musical, van den
Ende's team decided to go Mickey one better by building an entire reality
series around their search for the perfect Tarzan. That program, entitled
"Wie Wordt Tarzan
?," debuted on Dutch television in the Fall of 2006, with over 800
performers initially auditioning for this part. Joop's staff was eventually
able to winnow that talented group down to five finalists. Who then competed
against one another to prove who was the very best performer when it came
to acting, singing and dancing. (You can actually see an excerpt from this
program -- where four of the finalists swap out playing a scene with this
production's Jane, Chantal
Janzen -- by clicking on this link.)
In the end, it was this show's viewers (Who voted via
the Internet) who selected Ron Link
to play the title role in the first international production of "Tarzan."
FYI: Just like Josh Strickland, Link had once been a finalist on Holland's
version of "American
Anyway ... Thanks to "Wie Wordt Tarzan ?," Dutch theater
fans were now well aware of this new Disney musical months prior to its
official premiere at Circustheatre. Which really helped boost advance ticket
sales for "Tarzan" 's first international production.
Of course, by this time, the Broadway version of "Tarzan"
had been open for several months. And Joop's creative team were well aware
of all of the underwhelming reviews that Disney's newest musical had received
Now, this news might have discouraged a lesser group of
showmen. But not Joop van den Ende's staff. Working directly with "Tarzan"
's original creative team (Who actually welcomed a chance to revisit the
show), Joop's troupe identified many ways that this show could be improved
Chief among these was bringing Sergio
Trujillo to redo much the show's choreography. Best known these days
for that he recently did on the Broadway smash, "Jersey
Boys," Sergio reworked many of the numbers that Australian contemporary
ballet star Meryl
Tankard had originally done for "Tarzan."
Joop's group also insisted that -- in order to make the
most of the Circustheatre's performance space -- that more Cirque de Soleil
moments be folded into the show. Take -- for example -- how Jane makes
her entrance in the Dutch production. Instead of just walking out on stage,
Miss Porter now enters from the back of the hall and walks through the
Mind you, what adds to the fun of this moment in the show
is -- as Jane comes down the aisle -- Tarzan suddenly appears high above
the floor of Circustheatre's auditorium. Literally hanging above the audience
seated in the hall, the ape man then observes this beautiful creature as
she carefully makes her way through the jungle.
Let me stress here that we're not talking about radical
surgery here. This was refining, not retooling. Just a few nips and tucks.
A re-choreographed scene here, a new lyric (Provided by Phil
Collins himself, by the way) there. Now add in van den Ende's truly
inspired promotion of the first international production of "Tarzan" coupled
with the fact that this new Disney musical is now being staged inside a
theater that actually lends itself to all of Pichon Baldinu's flying and
bungee-ing ... And Disney Theatrical (And Stage Entertainment, of course)
now has a hit musical on its hands. In Holland, anyway.
So the big question now becomes ... Will any of these
changes be incorporated into the Broadway version of "Tarzan" ? Well, Disney
Theatrical did make changes to the Broadway
version of "The Lion King" after the London
production of that show opened in 1999. Why For? Because Julie
Taymor restaged some of the numbers for this Tony Award winning musical
so that they'd then better fit the performance space at the Lyceum.
And Taymor was so pleased with these changes that she had them folded into
the Broadway version of "The Lion King."
Similarly, new bits of stage business that proved to be
successful in the road companies of this Broadway smash eventually found
their way into the original version of "The Lion King." So it's not like
Disney Theatrical hasn't done something like this before.
The only problem is ... Given the physical set-up of the
Richard Rodgers Theatre, it's going to be extremely hard to incorporate
many of the changes that have been made for "Tarzan" 's first international
production into the Broadway version of the show. But -- that said -- that
still doesn't mean that the folks at Disney Theatrical won't fold these
pluses and improvements into any future productions of their newest musical.
You know what's ironic about all this? Disney Theatrical
fixed "Tarzan" the way that Broadway producers have been fixing troubled
shows for more than a century now. By taking it on the road. Way, way,
way on the road, admittedly. All the way to Holland. But -- in the end
-- the critics agree. "Tarzan" is now a much better show for having made
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