Green, according to popular psychology, not only symbolizes nature and fertility but also is the easiest shade on the eye. The dose of tranquility provided by Bob Crowley's lusciously verdant sets for "Tarzan" should prove medicinal to the naysayers as the Disney's latest stage venture becomes a prosperous fixture at the Richard Rodgers.
Green, according to popular psychology, not only symbolizes nature and fertility but also is the easiest shade on the eye, known for its soothing, refreshing qualities. Color therapy may not be enough to quell the carping of musical theater traditionalists about the theme-park aesthetic Disney has brought to Broadway. But the dose of tranquility provided by Bob Crowley’s lusciously verdant sets for “Tarzan” should prove medicinal to the naysayers as the entertainment empire’s latest stage venture becomes a prosperous fixture at the Richard Rodgers.
The show may be more sophisticated in terms of its design and physical presentation than in its workmanlike musical craftsmanship, but an insipid score has not stopped other Disney tuners from finding popular acceptance in the marketplace.
Expanding on the five songs he penned for the 1999 animated movie, Phil Collins has written numbers that rarely develop or build the way good musical theater songs should, and there’s no punchy act-one closer or stirring final anthem. But the pop score is tuneful, the lyrics serviceable and the pounding percussive rhythms occasionally exciting, which seems enough to ask in this vibrant package.
Drawing from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic tale of the apeman and from the Mouse toon’s screenplay, playwright David Henry Hwang, who did previous book duty on Disney’s “Aida,” has given the story the clean, uncomplicated lines necessary to communicate across the footlights and play to the broadest possible age range.
The emotional themes are universal ones — parental loss, mother-son attachment, the quest for paternal approval, the struggle with identity, the discovery of love. There’s also the eternal conundrum of man’s relationship to the natural world.
Particularly in the second act, when most of these elements crescendo, Hwang has shaped a show that’s kid-friendly but has sufficient warm sentimentality to move adults. It’s an advantage that an anthropomorphized gorilla can channel human feeling far more persuasively than a teapot or a meerkat.
Directing for the first time here after undertaking design chores for Disney on “Aida” and “Mary Poppins,” Crowley doesn’t rival the flourish Julie Taymor brought to “The Lion King.” But as an artist whose primary currency is visual, his contribution is no less significant. Crowley’s choice to box in the stage with a single dominating color creates an intimate storybook effect, enhanced by Natasha Katz’s magical, multihued lighting.
The show opens with an eventful but fluid sequence notable for its striking stage pictures and skillful manipulation of perspective. We watch a storm at sea and the near-drowning of a couple and their baby, tossed up on a beach in Africa; they enter the jungle, where a leopard with glowing red eyes kills both human parents and a baby gorilla, whose grieving mother adopts the orphaned human baby. It’s a classically cruel Disney plot setup conveyed with imaginative narrative concision.
As gorillas appear and disappear at great speed out of Crowley’s iridescent jungle foliage, it’s also the first of many opportunities to admire the vine-swinging aerial work and bungee feats designed by Pichon Baldinu, co-founder of Argentine troupe De La Guarda.
Broadway newcomer Meryl Tankard’s choreography is more impressive in the muscular gorilla ballet “Jungle Funk,” set to Collins’ propulsive drum beats, than elsewhere. But the show is not short on movement, its bracing physicality perhaps taking a cue from the Rodgers’ previous tenant, “Movin’ Out.”
Act one establishes the relationship between young Tarzan (Alex Rutherford) and his adoptive ape family, in particular doting mother Kala (Merle Dandridge). Her mate, Kerchak (Shuler Hensley), is a gruff silverback gorilla fiercely protective of his tribe and wary of humans, causing him to ostracize Tarzan, who grows up in semi-exile with Kala. A wisecracking ghetto-hipster ape who seems to share Prince’s stylist, Tarzan’s buddy Terk (Chester Gregory II) teaches him the art of pendulation (“Swing-ing, man”) in the spirited comic number “Who Better Than Me?”
Crowley fast-forwards through Tarzan’s childhood in a charming shadow-play sequence to the jubilant “Son of Man,” ushering in Josh Strickland as the young adult vine-swinger. He continues to puzzle over why he’s different until British botanist Jane Porter (Jenn Gambatese) arrives in the jungle to shed some light.
One of the show’s most elaborate visual sequences accompanies Jane’s song “Waiting for This Moment,” in which she wanders wide-eyed among undulating giant orchids as a ravishing moth flies overhead. As Jane gets caught in the web of a man-eating spider (its blobby, preschool-art conception is the only disappointing design element) and is rescued by Tarzan, Crowley’s staging becomes a little chaotic.
The budding romance and Tarzan’s crash course in the world of man are handled better. Crowley coaxes disarming work from lean, athletic Strickland, who conveys the innocence of a pure soul untainted by the savagery of civilized society. His lithe body movements deftly blend simian and human characteristics, and his assured vocals sidestep the overwrought exhibitionism that his “American Idol” apprenticeship might portend.
Channeling Kate Winslet, Gambatese has an expansive personality and a fine singing voice. Though it’s unclear quite what Jane is doing on an aerial swing, her duet with Tarzan, “For the First Time,” is a touching, full-bodied expression of their nascent love.
While the singers generally are overmiked and there’s too much evidence of backing-track enhancement, casting across the board is solid. Hensley brings gravitas and a powerful baritone to Kerchak, while Dandridge’s lovely Kala is a deeply sympathetic figure. During her tender reprise with Tarzan of Collins’ Oscar-winning ballad “You’ll Be in My Heart,” only hardened cynics’ tear ducts will stay dry.
Rutherford (alternating with Daniel Manche) makes a nimble and appealing preteen Tarzan, and he’s a good physical match for Strickland. A standout Seaweed in “Hairspray,” Gregory again shows a mighty talent for musical comedy, leading the exuberant scat number “Trashin’ the Camp” at the start of act two. Tim Jerome and Donnie Keshawarz flesh out familiar Disney archetypes as, respectively, honorable Professor Porter and villainous expedition guide Mr. Clayton.
Unlike previous Disney shows “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aida,” or the upcoming London import “Mary Poppins,” this first new Mouse House musical to hit Gotham in six years was not honed in an out-of-town tryout. Instead, it was finessed during workshops and an extended preview period, exposing the gestating production directly to the sniping of a community that regards itself as the artistic gatekeepers of the Broadway musical.
To the credit of the creative team and Disney Theatrical chief Thomas Schumacher, the show has come together to deliver eye-popping spectacle and unexpected emotional involvement. “Tarzan” should be seeing green at the box office for some time to come.