OREM — Although most people do not think of it as a challenging show, Tarzan is a tough show for amateur companies to mount because of its unusual plot structure, costuming demands, and physical acting challenges. But SCERA has never shied away from shows with difficult aspects, and so for the second time since UTBA started, Tarzan is swinging through the jungle again on the SCERA stage.
Based on the 1999 Disney film, Tarzan is an adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs story of a man raised by gorillas who feels torn between worlds when he meets other humans for the first time. David Henry Hwang‘s script is difficult, though not impossible, to make work on the stage. Its biggest problem is structural. The first act is mostly Tarzan’s backstory, and Jane does not arrive until the end of Act I. As a result, the romantic plot and the story of clashing cultures are crammed into the second act. Imagine The King and I told from the king’s perspective, and Anna does not show up until the play is half over.
Productions of Tarzan work best when emphasizing the relationships between pairs of main characters (Kerchak and Kala, Tarzan and Kala, Tarzan and Jane, Tarzan and Turk, Jane and her father), which means that the apes need to have emotions as profound as any human’s. Unfortunately, the needed emotional depth was often missing from Chase Ramsey‘s direction. As a result, it was difficult to care about the characters’ development and choices, and the climactic moments in the second act lost their power. The fights and the bullying scene were also a disappointment because it never felt like the characters were in danger.
Yet, Chase Ramsey‘s work had some directorial strengths. The addition of gorillas lounging in the background of some scenes added a touch of realism to an otherwise fantastical story. I also appreciated the effective direction of the crowd scenes and the naturalistic blocking in stand-and-deliver songs, like “For the First Time.” Finally, the pacing of the show is brisk, and its two-hour run time flies by.
Brian Smith stars as the title character, and he projects psychological strength through his commanding presence and firm demeanor. Smith is believable as a person who has had to build a shell to protect himself from ostracism and teasing. But the vulnerable man beneath was never apparent. Still, Smith has a nice voice that meshes well with the Phil Collins songs, especially “Different” and “For the First Time.”
As Jane, Hailey Bennett Sundwall is at ease on the huge SCERA Shell stage. Whether she is marveling at the flora and fauna of the jungle, having a tender moment with her father (played by Mike Ramsey), or standing up to the dangerous Clayton (played by Bronson Dameron), Hailey Bennett Sundwall seems to be a natural fit for the role. Furthermore, she brought a touch of tenderness to the play as she sang a heartfelt rendition of “Like No Man I’ve Ever Seen.” I also enjoyed Jane’s attempts to balance scientific detachment and British propriety as the apes and Tarzan were poking and prodding her while she was trying to observe them. It was a moment that communicated a lot of information about the character.
The supporting cast had some hits and misses. As a gorilla soloist, Jordan Millet fulfilled the potential of “Strangers Like Me” and was responsible for much of the depth in the baritone range in the ensemble songs. Jeff Sundwall was less satisfying as Kerchak because of the complete lack of emotional connection with Kala (played by Coco Galli King). He also walking upright for most of the play and displayed few apelike mannerisms. Keely Conrad played Terk nicely, but was hampered by a forced accent and the fact that the character mostly exists so that Tarzan can have someone to talk to besides his ape-mother.
Visually, the most striking aspects of the show is Shawn Herrera‘s jungle set, which created a myriad of plant species by using different material—cloth, painted surfaces, and paper—for the foliage. When the sun had set and the green and yellow lighting design from Elizabeth Griffiths was added, the illusion of a verdant, lush jungle was complete. Kelsey Seaver’s costumes were pleasant, especially the stylized gorilla costumes that included strips of color (red, pink, purple, brown, etc.) to give the actors some individuality and avoid the monotony that a bunch of black and grey realistic gorilla costumes would have. The lights in the flower costumes also did much to create a relaxing, hypnotic feel for some of the scenes in the second act. On the other hand, Janessa Ramsey’s choreography was consisted of the basic building blocks of musical theatre dance steps and little more. Songs like “Son of Man” and “Trashin’ the Camp” had a modest energy level that failed to elevate these songs.
No, Tarzan is not high art, but it is a challenge to mount for an amateur company. I respect companies that try to make shows with script or score problems work on stage. For the most part, SCERA’s production meets those challenges, and the result is a show that is a nice way to spend two hours outdoors.