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Volume 1674


Opening Night Notes
By Bill Hillman
May 10, 2006

Richard Rodgers Theatre Marquee

Main Entrance

Crowd Entering the Theatre
Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan in 1912. Since that time Tarzan has received relatively little critical acclaim -- despite being one of the most recognizable icons and popular literary characters in the world. Amazingly, Burroughs and his creations have been on the driving edge of almost every type of show business medium throughout the 20th and now into the 21st century: magazine & newspaper appearances, films (silent, b&w, serials, colour, animated), Broadway and English stage productions, self-incorporation, millions of books in scores of languages, newspaper adventure strips, comic books, merchandising and commercial tie-ins, toys, SF and fantasy art, syndicated radio serials on ETs and tape, records, TV shows, fan clubs and conventions, Internet Web sites, e-texts, computer gaming, ring tones, podcasts, video, etc.

The Disney and Tarzan phenomena both go on and on -- two of the most unbelievable success stories in entertainment world -- but the decision to take Tarzan to Broadway was a bold move. Despite the recent successes in adapting Beauty and the Beast and Lion King to the stage, making the transition of yet another animated feature (Tarzan grossed a half billion dollars worldwide) into a stage play and adapting the story of an orphan raised by jungle apes into a musical would be a hard sell considering the jaded and somewhat myopic nature of the Broadway denizens.

By choosing the century-old, iconic Tarzan, the Disney team faced the challenge of coming up with a production that would integrate elements that would satisfy the following:

  • an audience spanning all generations and expectations who wanted their $100's worth in the highly competative theatre district
  • Broadway regulars so used to the conventions of the proscenium and 'drahma'
  • theme park visitors atuned to huge, sprawling outdoor attractions
  • Las Vegas goers accustomed to the glitzy showrooms that constantly arise phoenix-like out of the desert entertainment capital
  • film lovers so used to modern movie palaces and zillion dollar productions
  • a mix of music aficianados whose tastes run the gamut from the song and dance of traditional theatre to contemporary rock and pop
  • ERB fans and lit types demanding respect for the original novels
  • an older generation whose image of Tarzan has been set by old films and comics
  • the new generation raised on the intimacy and portability of digital gizmos
  • -- and circling over the whole project would be the one of the harshest and most unforgiving and powerful forces in the entertainment world: the Broadway critics.

    The Disney creative team met the challenge by adapting their already successful formula. They expanded on many of the elements that worked in their previous stage shows and in the Tarzan animated version to create an eye-popping spectacle. To give a fair analysis of all the elements that have come together to create this spectacle would take numerous show sittings and necessitate copious notemaking as there is so much happening on, above and off the stage. Since I was carried away by the excitement of the production on my opening night visit, I can only share a few first impressions with ERBzine readers.

    Sue-On & Crowd in Lobby

    Audience Entering the Auditorium

    Standing Ovation
    Grammy winner and rock legend Phil Collins won an Oscar for "You'll Be In My Heart" from the film, so he seemed a logical choice for building on this already proven score. In this he is largely successful, and although the songs aren't exactly what some stage critics might expect, they certainly augment the story and have more than a few emotional moments and hummable melodies. The music arrangements are powerful and the sound system is excellent --the body mics on the performers facilitate a perfect mix with the orchestration, and ensure that the dialogue is clearly heard throughout the theatre.

    Tarzan and Jane are played by two appealing young actors: an American Idol contestant, Josh Strickland, and Jenn Gambatese ("All Shook Up" and other Broadway shows).

    Strickland has a very good voice that is well-suited to the Collins songs -- even while performing acrobatics high above the stage . . . and audience. He also has appealing looks and stage presence. His physique, however, is on the over-lithe, under-muscled side, but it is hard to envision a more buff and bulkier actor performing the constant back flips, "stage crawling" and vine swinging demanded by the role.

    Jenn also has an appealing, capable voice and stage presence. Personally, though, having been raised on so many gorgeous ERB heroines with fetching costumes, I find her costume very unflattering. I realize that the aim is to dress her in Victorian style, but the outfit chosen tends to leave the production somewhat void of sex appeal for males -- especially noticable since her male co-star spends most of his time on stage in a loin cloth.

    The roles are based on the Disney animated characters, and as such they depart from ERB's vision:

  • Tarzan is a somewhat childlike and lightly-bearded character who spends much of his time on all-fours, dragging his knuckles, and tossing around his long blonde dreadlocks.
  • Brown-haired Jane speaks with a cultivated English accent. Her idea of a daring costume consists of losing her long skirt to appear in long Victorian bloomers.
  • The evil Clayton -- no relation to John Clayton --speaks with a southern American accent and threatens to shoot everything in sight.
  • Tarzan's ape or Mangani family are depicted as gorillas (the adversarial Bolgani in the books).  The gorillas spend much of their time, dancing, leaping and swinging on ropes and bungees above the stage and out over the audience -- all of this is quite exciting to watch and obviously long hours of training has gone into these performances. Their costumes are very stylized with fur covering most of their "flight" harnesses, while their faces, arms and legs are left exposed.
  • As in the book and film, Kala is a very sympathetic character who adopts baby Tarzan to replace the one she has lost, and she is given touching songs and moralizing dialogue.
  • Kerchak is much more of a father figure -- although distant -- than he appears in the books -- and he, rather than Kala, is killed near the close of the play.

  • Spectacular Acrobatics

    Tarzan's Entrance

    Hillmans during standing ovation
    The stage is surrounded on three sides with 40-foot green fronds that represent jungle growth and which hide pockets from where the apes swing on vines out over the stage. These moves are marvelously rehearsed as the "swingers" have to return to these hidden pockets in the upper, middle and lower terraces of the "rain forest." Our front row seats in the upper mezzanine provided us with a closeup view of two exciting entrances: Tarzan, and later, a dancing butterfly, flew over our heads while attached to a cable that stretched all the way to the stage.

    Photo 2006 Joan MarcusOddly, when there is no "jungle" activity, and when the lighting effects or scrim are not in play, the set's three-sided backdrop of hanging plastic streamers gives the unnerving sensation of being trapped in a giant green carwash. This is an unfair criticism  since the set design is vital for the amazing acrobatics of the ape actors, and the accompanying lush, inventive lighting by Natasha Katz provides a myriad of effects. A section in the middle of the stage floor drops to serve as ponds, pits, etc. which are integrated into many of the scenes.

    Perhaps the biggest disappointment to me is the venue itself -- the 80-year-old Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street. The front, marquee, and lobby are somewhat tired and underwhelming.  Producer Bob Crowley must have done some fancy stepping to launch such an ambitious razzmatazz production with its revolutionary set, maze of cables, and electronic equipment, on such a cramped stage, facing such a traditional seating arrangement. Modern auditoriums such as the MGM Grand in Las Vegas would present this production to its full potential.

    I made a point of circulating during intermission to pick up some of the audience feedback -- and since the comments I heard were all enthusiastic I was quite surprised when the early reviews turned out to be so mixed. To add to the cross section of comments I had hoped to get to the theatre's outdoor terrace bar where those in the know usually hang out, but couldn't talk my way past the vigilant Dusty who indicated it was reserved for family members.

    Veteran playwright David Henry Hwang has provided the clean, uncomplicated lines necessary to appeal to the broadest possible age range. The comedy lines scattered throughout the play are amusing and are easily picked up by all ages. I made a point of observing the young people scattered throughout the audience -- all were caught up in the magic of sound effects, lighting, music and acrobatics. So too was the majority of the audience who rose to give a prolonged standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance.

    Cast with Phil Collins and Bob Crowley take their curtain call

    I would remind ERB fans critical of the Disney "cartoon" treatment of their beloved jungle lord that this is just another in what has been an almost century-long series of re-inventions of the character. This has ensured the longevity of Tarzan® -- and his copyrighted yell -- and has provided instant worldwide recognition for generations. Furthermore, how many fictional characters have basked in publicity such as that given by Disney and ERB, Inc. since the Disney Tarzan film was first released in 1999: animated features, TV series, DVD releases, games, merchandising, theme park attractions & shows, and now a Broadway blitz.

    Sue-On and I had the almost surreal experience of walking down Broadway with ERB's grandson, Danton (with his wife and daughter Dejah) and seeing images of Tarzan all around us while being bombarded with Tarzan yells yodelling from passing cars. There are huge images of Tarzan on the city buses, "mile-high" banners covering whole sides of New York skyscrapers, and footage of the stage production being shown on massive wall paper screens on Times Square.

    Thanks to modern communications and the Internet, the Tarzan phenomenon, now more than at any time in the past, is truly global. Before we flew to the US from our home in Brandon, MB, Canada, I enjoyed weeks of telephone and e-mail correspondence with Eric the Disney Webmaster in New York and Josh, the Disney Webmaster in Paris, setting up promotions for the premier and sending ERB bios and photos for inclusion in their Websites, Playbills and promo brochures. I was also contacted by Phil, producer of ABC News Nightline to whom I sent storylines, Web material and set up interviews for their national Nightline feature on the Tarzan and ERB phenomenon. If the number of hits on the ERB Websites and the barrage of e-mails from all over the world is any indication, we are in another Edgar Rice Burroughs resurgence.

    The wizardry of the Master of Adventure from Tarzana is still very much alive!


    Intro ~ Contents
    NYC: Advent
    NY Adventure
    On the Carpet
    Disney Party
    Last Safari


    Tarzan Preview Notes
    Opening Night Notes
    Review Highlights
    Tarzan Souvenirs
    Before & After Notes

    The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs
    Tarzine: Official Monthly Webzine of ERB, Inc.
    John Coleman Burroughs Tribute Site
    ERBzine Weekly Webzine

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