SPANISH FORK — The biggest surprise of Spanish Fork Community Theater’s production of Tarzan is not the dancing apes or the characters swinging across the stage. Rather, it is the fact that Tarzan is not another soulless stage adaptation of a Disney film. The cast and crew in Spanish Fork have created a show with genuine emotion and heart.
As the title character, Richie Trimble had the hearty jungle yell and physique that audience members expect from the legendary Edgar Rice Burroughs character. Trimble breathed a curiosity into his character that made his interactions with the other human characters endearing. As he poked and prodded Jane and stared at the technological objects in the camp, Trimble showed the excitement that Tarzan had when he saw so many fascinating novel objects. Trimble was also superb at eliciting empathy for Tarzan in the song “Everything I Am.” As Tarzan learned about his human parents, Trimble conveyed the universal longing to know understand one’s self and origins.
In the role of Jane, Shannon Eden had a dainty formality that contrasted well with the simian movements of Tarzan and the ape characters. Eden gradually let Jane’s British formality fade away as she grew closer to Tarzan and his world. Eden also has a sweet voice, which brought an innocence and humanity to songs like “Like No Man I’ve Seen” and “For the First Time.”
Several of the supporting cast also did their part to make a fulfilling story. Vanessa Leazanby had a sweet maternal love for Tarzan in the role of Kala, especially when she rescued him as a baby in “You’ll Be In My Heart.” Leazanby had a tenderness in her facial expressions and mannerisms that conveyed genuine emotion for Kala’s adopted human son. This emotional investment in their relationship made the second act’s conflicts have higher stakes for Tarzan. As Kala’s mate, Kerchak, David Henry had a gruff characterization that brought a strength to his character that made him a forceful leader. Additionally, Henry gave Kerchak a “tough love” approach to governing the other apes that made his behavior logical, such as the decision to part with Kala (“Sure as Sun Turns to Moon”) or to flee the humans by moving deeper into the jungle.
Aside from the normal minor hiccups that are understandable in an arts council production, the biggest problem with this play was the source material. Although not as problematic as last year’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, David Henry Hwang‘s script dwells far too much on Tarzan’s back story. As a result, Jane doesn’t appear until the last scene in the first act, and the human antagonist (the smug, arrogant Clayton, played aptly by Jacob Keele) doesn’t show up until after intermission. The script also has Terk, Tarzan’s ape friend who seems unnecessary to the story, despite Deven Skaggs‘s best efforts to save the character from irrelevance.
Directors Cami Jensen and Ken Jensen created the most rewarding moments of the play in the spoken scenes. These directors created meaningful relationships between pairs of characters that made me truly care about the people on stage. Whether it was Kala and Tarzan, or Tarzan and Jane, or Kala and Kerchak, or Jane and her father, I saw real connections between characters that made the show move past a popcorn entertainment into a exploration of family relationships.
The only major directorial flaw in the show that I saw was the decision to use dancers dressed in white for the songs at the water pool (“Odd Man Out” and “For the First Time”). I couldn’t figure out whether they were supposed to be an animal, a symbol for something, or were just there to add a touch of grace to the songs. Whatever the directors’ reason, the dancers ended up being a distraction for me during these songs.
Ken Jensen’s set design was ideal for this show, with spaces for gorillas to climb, swing from vines, and dance. It seemed that no space or set trick was overused, and the ways that the ensemble would navigate the stage always felt fresh. Lawson Bendall‘s lighting designs accentuated the set and helped establish the mood of songs like “You’ll Be in My Heart” and “Sure as Sun Turns to Moon.”
Despite the drawbacks, I can in good conscience recommend this show to the families and Disney lovers of Utah County. Tarzan may not be a masterpiece, but the folks from Spanish Fork Community Theater had me leaving the theatre with a smile on my face and a few good tunes running through my head. I applaud everyone who worked on this show for tackling a challenging play and presenting a production that they can be proud of.