Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: 3-D Theatricals' TARZAN The Musical is a Swinging Success

Katie DeShan and Devon Archer. All photos by Isaac James Creative

Tarzan the Musical is the latest winner in a string of ambitious musicals by the Dawson producing team at 3-D Theatricals (Gretchen, Daniel, Jeannette and T.J.). Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a family run company would know the kind of heart it takes to bring to life a Disney adventure musical about the power of family and finding one’s place in the world. In any case, Tarzan is one big show that succeeds beautifully under their care.

Adapted from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and originally produced on Broadway by Disney Theatrical Productions, 3DT has made a number of smart decisions that make their version of the show much more vivid and engaging than the Broadway production I saw in New York. Yes, I’m actually one of the few people who really did see the show on Broadway. It ran there a little over a year but never came close to the success of other Disney properties like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. There were definite reasons for that.

Songs by 80’s pop star Phil Collins, who wrote the music & lyrics, were pretty but largely unmemorable with the exception of Merle Dandridge’s gorgeous version of “You’ll Be in My Heart,” and David Henry Hwang’s book didn’t give the actors much depth with which to create their characters.

Oddly enough, in the excellent hands of director Rufus Bonds, Jr. and his 3DT cast, the characters take on a richness that make Tarzan completely satisfying, both artistically and emotionally. It’s a credit to what the company does and reason enough why I recommend you make the drive to see this production. There won’t be another Tarzan in Southern California like it again.

Daebreon Poiema and Devon Archer 

Casting is superb. Daebreon Poiema’s luscious singing voice and nuanced portrayal of mama ape Kala gets the audience’s full and complete empathy as protectress of her adopted son Tarzan (Devon Archer). Archer takes a character that could easily end up as a series of tricks and stereotypes and turns him into an endearing, funny, sweet, and ultimately smart young man whose instincts prove to be rock solid throughout. When he meets Jane, Katie DeShan (darling as the spunky, naïve, and hilariously clumsy professor’s daughter with a predilection for bugs), their natural chemistry opens the door to romance for two people, neither of whom possesses much in the way of social graces when it comes to the opposite sex. The fact that their meet cute takes place while she’s being swallowed by a man eating plant only makes it better. 

Lawrence Cummings (Terk) has mastered the art of comic relief and provides it whether he’s clowning around or joyously scatting his way through a song. Casting a handsome, charismatic actor like Marc Cedrik Smith rather than a more typical character man like Shuler Hensley, who originated the role of ape leader Kerchak, somehow makes him more vulnerable. The contrast between that vulnerability and his intimidating stage presence and voice makes us care about him, even if we don’t like what he does to Tarzan. And as Professor Porter, Joey D’Auria offers common sense wisdom with a twinkle in his eye and a father’s love in his heart.
Devon Archer as Tarzan and the cast of Tarzan the Musical

Stephen Gifford’s whimsical three dimensional storybook set design is a marvel of design solutions and his ability to provide ways for a cast to interact with his set to enrich their characters is delightful. What this designer can do with wood and paint will astound you and how lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier lights the pieces and creates the rest of the jungle world will make you smile at the enchanting result. Wait until you see the reveal of his moonlight on the water. It’s a breathtaking moment.

Another large part of the magic comes from Paul Rubin’s flying sequences and aerial choreography. The opening storm at sea and shipwreck is staged like the original and is as stunning here as it was on Broadway. Indeed, if it had continued to deliver on that magic throughout the show it might have fared better. 

Here, with Rubin’s creativity, you get gorillas endlessly catapulting through the air, aerial fight scenes, and a beautiful butterfly and insect ballet floating overhead. Combined with the ingenuity of Linda Love Simmons’ on-the-ground ape choreography, it is a wholly integrated world of wonder.

Much like the forever bond between parent and child, 3-D Theatricals’ Tarzan the Musical further stakes its claim as a Southern California’s destination for Broadway – and in this case, better than Broadway – entertainment. It gets the green light from me.


Marc Cedric Smith as Kerchak

The cast of Tarzan the Musical

Devon Archer and Dominique Alan Petit Frere

Katie DeShan (center) and the cast of Tarzan the Musical

Brian Abraham, Joey D'Auria and Katie DeShan

TARZAN THE MUSICAL
3-D Theatricals
July 11 – 26, 2015: Plummer Auditorium
August 1 - 9, 2015: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

Tickets: www.3dtshows.com

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