The Pearland Theatre Guild has the courage of a lion in presenting the regional premiere of Tarzan the Musical, for two reasons: 1) it is an ambitious project with a large cast and the need to create a jungle set; and 2) the Disney Broadway production received some of the most negative reviews in recent history. The Guild may have been encouraged by the fact that the musical has been a huge success in Europe, with two long-running productions, one in Scheveningen, Netherlands,.and one in Hamburg, Germany
The acting ranges from excellent down to, well, let's just say that the gorilla actors are better than those playing humans. A shipwreck and the offstage death of his parents leaves an infant in a precarious position, but the leaders of a tribe of gorillas adopts him, the female Kala eagerly and the male Kerchak reluctantly. In growing up, Tarzan is befriended by a young gorilla, Terk, and the long introductory scenes before the mature Tarzan enters have an elegiac, pastoral quality, and a charming sweetness.
Daniel Ewetuya plays Kerchak, and is amazingly good, capturing his gravitas as leader, his judgment at foreseeing potential problems, and his love for Kala; it is a commanding, standout performance. Kala is portrayed on alternate performances by Stephanie Politte and Monique Von Deylen; I saw Von Deylen in the role, and she found the maternal love, and the independent spirit that let her stand up to Kerchak, as well as quiet charm. The young Terk was played by Duke Barthholomae, who has a strong stage presence and will be an actor to watch once he stops chewing the scenery. The young Tarzan is played by Andrew Sackett, who shows the eagerness of youth and his love for Kala, and substantial gymnastic skill as he traverses jungle vines.
The mature Tarzan is played by Kiefer Slaton - this is a relatively thankless role for an actor, as, when not singing, Tarzan mostly grunts and says a few words in pidgin English, with his chief acting assignment to look good in a loincloth. Slaton fulfills all these, has a warm, welcoming smile, and his sculptured abs deserve a Tony all to themselves, though he is burdened with a wig that is breathtakingly bad. So-called civilization intrudes on this edenic setting with the arrival of a scientific expedition - finally, the archetypical "Me Tarzan, you Jane" appears to be on the horizon. Jane Porter is accompanied by her father and Clayton, who is attracted to her.
The director is Nathan C. Hand, who was quite good in maneuvering the gorillas through their paces, but stumbles badly with the humans, possibly because he plays the part of Clayton, and so can't see the shambles occurring onstage. Hand begins his role as Clayton with a British accent, but it turns Southern at times, and he fails to project his voice. Strange indeed for such an experienced actor. But then Haley Landers as Jane also fails to project her voice - perhaps they thought they were in the movie, not the play. Neil Kirpatrick as Jane's father is good - and we can hear him. And Renee Honojosa as the mature Terk retains the exuberance of youth, and gives an engaging, delightful performance.
The scenic design by Ed and Robyn LeGris captures the feeling of a glade in a jungle; the branches overhead add verisimilitude, and the overhead bar upstage lets the more athletic actors show off their gymnastic skill. The musical direction by Heather Tipsword is fine, and she doubles at the keyboard, but the amplified sound drowns out the singing voices far too often, especially with Landers.
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The highlights to me were the powerful performance of Ewetuya , of Von Deylen as Kala with a wonderful singing voice, clear, haunting and filled with a depth of emotion, and the exciting, humorous "Trashin' the Camp", where the gorilla ensemble goes to town on the suitcases of the expedition. And, of course, the muscular abs of Slaton.
An ambitious project is largely successful, though some amateurish acting in Act Two is unfortunate, undermining an otherwise surprisingly deft production. But the evening remains vastly entertaining..
Tarzan the Musical continues through Sept. 8, from the Pearland Theatre Guild at Pearl Theatre, 14803 Park Almeda Drive. For information or tickets, call 713-340-2540 or contact www.pearl-theater.com.