News Column

Lyric Theatre swings into its 50th anniversary season with 'Tarzan'

June 27, 2013


June 27--When it comes to finding stories to musicalize, Broadway rarely overlooks any potential property. Such an approach has led to musicals based on comic strips ("Annie"), the visual arts ("Sunday in the Park With George"), pop song catalogues ("Jersey Boys") and dance ("A Chorus Line").

With "Tarzan," the opening production in Lyric Theatre's 50th anniversary season, we get a theme park musical with wild rides and impressive scenery. It's a Disney show after all, a company known for its ability to use theatrical magic to transform less than compelling narratives.

Everyone knows the story: after Tarzan's parents are killed, he's raised by the she-ape Kala to the consternation of her mate Kerchak. And while Tarzan adapts to life among the apes, he knows he's different, something that becomes abundantly clear once he meets Jane Porter.

With musical numbers that feature apes executing complex choreography and exchanges between characters who communicate through snorts, bellowing and chest pounding, "Tarzan" the musical can't withstand too much scrutiny.

But theater asks audiences to suspend reality and if the acting and visuals are sufficiently compelling, they're happy to go along for the ride. Thanks to Michael Baron's swift pacing and keen vision for creating a vivid portrait of life in the jungle, Lyric's audience is willingly seduced.

His efforts are spectacularly complemented by Adam Koch's multi-level scenic design, Jeffrey Meek's imaginative costumes, Helena Kuukka's color-saturated lighting design, Ashley Wells' stage choreography and Daniel Stover's impressive aerial choreography.

The musical's opening number, titled "Two Worlds (One Family)," sets up the premise that even the unlikeliest familial groups share the basic tenets of acceptance, protection, one's search for identity and love. In the case of "Tarzan," we see those shared values even with different species.

Bridging those worlds can be unintentionally humorous, however, as witnessed when Tarzan struggles mightily to communicate with Jane but then launches into a full-throated musical number moments later.

And yet, it's the show's underlying sense of sly humor that masks many of those incongruities and often leads to outbursts of laughter when one senses some character's knowing wink or unexpected change in facial expressions.

While it's never easy for actors to find depth in characters where little exists, Lyric's cast is impressive across the board. For much of the first act, the story hinges on young Tarzan, with Jace Appling demonstrating a fine grasp of his character's blend of shyness and wise guy humor.

His friend Terk, who envisions himself as Tarzan's protector, springs to kinetic life in Jamard Richardson's joyous portrayal. He shines in "Trashin' the Camp," the second act opener which finds a curious band of apes delighting in rummaging through the Porter family's belongings.

Chad Anderson lends a proper British sensibility to his role as Professor Porter, a man bent on proving his theory that apes are social beings. And Monte Riegel Wheeler, as the self-appointed protector of Jane, is hilarious as the pompous Clayton, a characterization that recalls Dudley Do-Right.

Heather Botts offers a luminous portrayal as Jane, the eager botanist who is both afraid of Tarzan but clearly aroused by his chiseled physique. Her Victorian propriety keeps her emotions in check but the exchanges between Jane and Tarzan tell a different and delightfully humorous story.

Steve Blanchard commands the stage as Kerchak, the leader of the apes, and unleashes a powerful voice in "No Other Way," a number that conveys his inner struggle with Tarzan's potential to someday bring harm to his family.

As Kala, Felicia Boswell exudes a sense of unwavering devotion to Tarzan, the boy she feels compelled to raise as her own. Boswell's character also gets one of Phil Collins' best numbers, the charming ballad "You'll Be In My Heart."

Nicholas Rodriguez offers a contemporary take on his role as Tarzan, with a perfect blend of seriousness and impishness that prevents his character from turning into a caricature. Rodriguez's puzzled looks and gleeful outbursts further endear him to the audience.

In his duets with Jane -- "Different" and "For the First Time" -- Rodriguez demonstrates that he also has sufficiently impressive vocal chops to win over even the most jaded audience member. He also cuts quite a dashing figure in Tarzan's simple loincloth.

If Lyric's production of "Tarzan" suggests a mashup of Disney's take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel and a cirque extravaganza, it does so with considerable flair and taste. It's a jungle adventure that offers plenty of visual appeal without losing the emotional charm of the tale's universal themes.

-- Rick Rogers


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