IVINS — Based on the 1999 animated film, Tuacahn’s production of Tarzan is this summer’s must-see show. Finding my seat in the outdoor amphitheatre, I was excited to see the elaborate jungle styled flats and sides (fantastic scenic and lighting design by Paul Black) and to see what else director Scott Anderson, choreographer Mara Newbery Greer, and music director Daniel Mollett had in store for the audience. And from the time the show started until curtain call, I was not disappointed.

Show closes October 21, 2023.

The musical version of Tarzan follows the son of a shipwrecked English couple, who, after the death of his parents, is raised by gorillas, with no knowledge as to what he is and no clue about where he belongs. Tarzan struggles to fit in with his ape family and to appease his adopted father, Kerchek. One day, his world turns upside down (quite literally, because it occurs while he is hanging upside down), when a beautiful female English naturalist walks into the jungle. And when he meets her, he quite accurately exclaims, “Something tells me I will never ever be the same again!” The musical’s book (by David Henry Hwang) has the events of the play stay fairly close to the film, though with some alterations.

One of the constant strengths of this production (aside from the wonderful music and lyrics by Phil Collins), is Josh Strickland playing the title role. Strickland has reprised the role of Tarzan, which he originated on Broadway. From the moment he swung across the stage in “Son of Man,” he had me completely enthralled. His physicality and amazing vocals are very much the same as when he first did the role, and he was 21 at the time. Unsurprisingly, Strickland has a familiarity and comfort with Tarzan (both the character and the show) that is convincing and entertaining to watch. The connection between Strickland and his other cast members (particularly the chemistry Tarzan has with Jane, played by Ashley Moniz) was a driving force that propelled this story forward.

Moniz is lovely in her portrayal of Jane Porter; her sense of wonder of Africa’s wildlife and plant life is clear from the moment she starts singing “Waiting For This Moment.” Jane’s drive and ambition to learn all she could made her an appealing character and drew Tarzan to her. To watch her fall more and more in love with Tarzan every time they would connect with their eyes or touch hands was heartwarming.

Ashley Moniz as Jane. Photo by Ben Braten.

However, the most important relationship in the show is not the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, but the relationship between Tarzan and his mother, Kala (played by Beatriz Melo). Melo brought not only a gorgeous voice (which absolutely shined in “You’ll Be In My Heart,” a favorite out of the musical score), but a sense of love that made her character endearing. As played by Melo, Kala takes the audience through a touching emotional journey, including the pain she feels at the start with the loss of her son when he was killed by the leopard, the joy of finding Tarzan, her love for both Tarzan and Kerchek, and her resolve to do whatever was necessary to care for those she loves.

Another relationship that helps Tarzan from a semi-helpless little boy (wonderfully played by Greyson Neilson) to a man—well . . . an ape man—is none other than the relationship between Tarzan and his best friend, Terk (played by Rendell Debose). Debose brought Terk to life with an energetic performance and incredible vocals (essential to singing such fun songs as “Who Better Than Me,” “Son of Man,” and the classic “Trashin’ the Camp”) as well as comedic timing and reactions. Terk is definitely a fun character to watch.

James Channing brings new depth and understanding to that heavy burdened and almost overprotective Kerchek. Instead of the one-dimensional character driven by anger and prejudice (as he seems in the animated film), Channing makes Kerchek committed to do anything to protect his family and spare them from the pain that he has experienced. Channing’s commanding presence and stature are matched by his amazing voice, especially in “No Other Way.” But there was a bit of sweetness and gentleness in Kercheck, as seen as in the duet “Sure As Sun Turns To Moon,” sung with Kala.

Left to right: Greyson Nielson as Young Tarzan and Rendell DeBose as Terk. Photo by Ben Braten.

There were only two issues I had with the production. Hwang’s script almost completely removed Jane’s father (Archimedes Q. Porter) from the show. Shortly after meeting Jane, I was looking forward to meeting her father, as I have enjoyed his character in other productions, but I was genuinely surprised and saddened that the role was diminished. In this production, the professor had already passed on without seeing his research into gorillas reach fruition. I imagine this was done to shorten the play, as it cut out Prof. Porter’s dialogue with Clayton, Jane, and Tarzan, as well as “Like No Man I’ve Ever Seen” (a duet between the professor and his daughter). While this was relatively understandable, it took away another familial bond in the show that endears the show and its characters to those who watch it.

Another issue I had was making Clayton (otherwise well portrayed by Sean Thompson), the antagonist of the film and show alike, into Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Having Jane spurn Clayton’s obvious attempts of flirting and his ideas of capturing gorillas to sell them as attractions was an easy copout to make Clayton into the show’s bad guy. Thompson’s performance, though was convincing in this unexpected character arc; he did his best with a script that made the character into a two-dimensional villain.

Tarzan was an amazing collaboration of the technical aspects of theatre, including the projections designed by Brad Peterson and sound design by Josh Liebert. In true Tuacahn fashion, the technical components were incredible. From the very start, with the projections of the ship that wrecks, resulting in Tarzan and his parents being stranded, and the flooding of the stage, it was clear that Tuacahn’s technical directors (Brendan Baker and Jeff Miller) were not pulling any of their punches. In his direction, Anderson used the entire space of the outdoor amphitheatre, all the fly systems, the main stage, the rock platforms, and even the aisles of the audience seating area. It was a very well done and enjoyable production to watch.

In the end, the most important thing I have to say is that audiences should come to Tuacahn and “Look to the sky! Lift your spirit, set it free” with Tarzan.

Tarzan plays at various times through October 21 at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre (1100 Tuacahn Drive, Ivins). Tickets are $30-146. For more information, visit tuacahn.org.

This review is generously supported by a grant from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.