If you look out the window here in East Tennessee right now, you’ll note a reminder with each falling leaf that we’re headed toward winter. You could batten down the hatches and bury yourself in blankets in preparation for the impending freeze, or you could head to Theatre-at-Tusculum’s production of “Tarzan: The Stage Musical.”
With the purchase of a ticket, you’ll buy yourself a few more hours basking in the summer sun.
Tusculum University Arts Outreach’s fall offering is a fabulous Victorian adventure in a verdant jungle. The musical is based on Disney’s 1999 animated film “Tarzan,” itself based on the 1912 novel “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It brings with it all the exciting elements of any Tarzan fantasy (think beautiful and exotic animals, brilliant colors, swinging vines and a dangerous plot), but the musical also carries a gorgeous score by pop icon Phil Collins and a sweet, funny script by David Henry Hwang.
The story opens on a pair of Victorian shipwreck victims, played by Dylan and Allison Pruitt. Dylan Pruitt’s haunting opening solo sets the tone for a larger-than-life adventure deep in the African jungle. Juxtaposed with this human couple is a pair of apes, Kala and Kerchak, played by Christa DelSorbo and Tusculum student Trevor Kahland, respectively. Both couples fawn over their newborn children, two young boys, one human and one ape. When the human couple are tragically killed, and the newborn ape is taken from its adoring parents, a devastated Kala finds the baby boy and chooses (despite Kerchak’s orders to “get rid of it”) to raise it as her own. She sings the Collins hit “You’ll Be In My Heart” with beautiful emotion; her need to repair a broken spirit by caring for an infant stranger feels raw and heartbreaking.
Throughout Act I, we see Tarzan growing up as a human child among a tightly-knit ape community. The senior and junior apes are mind-bogglingly fun to watch. As a troupe, they move in waves, swinging, jumping, crawling and making jungle noises in a joyful cacophony.
Young Tarzan, played sweetly and sympathetically by Griffin Gricunas, struggles to find a like-minded companion in the troupe, and is ostracized by the young apes until befriended by resident weirdo and good timer Terk (brilliantly played as a youngster by Craig Robertson and later by Parker Bunch, whose comedy chops just get better every time he takes the stage). Terk protects Tarzan while Tarzan’s human ingenuity and creativity solve age-old problems — like how to scratch those hard-to-reach places.
Tarzan still struggles to win the approval of his would-be father, though, and it is only through Kala’s love and intervention that he survives to adulthood. He finally convinces Kerchak to accept him when he protects the family from its old adversary, a wily and terrifying leopard played with cat-like grace and intensity by Hanna Johnson.
Enter a Victorian scientific expedition: biologist Professor Porter, played by the endearing and jovial Josh Beddingfield, and his beautiful, brainy daughter Jane, brought to life by the lovely Sarah Sanders. On a quest to log new species of flora and fauna, Jane stumbles into danger (embodied by a mysterious “creature,” made terrifying and real by Elizabeth Sparks) and is saved by the “wild man” Tarzan, who recognizes in Jane something so similar to himself in form and spirit that it makes him question everything he’s ever known. Carter DelSorbo, in the title role, plays a kind and curious Tarzan; his performance evokes all that we see in an excited child who finally finds the one thing that makes his brain tick. Funny and fierce by turns, DelSorbo does an admirable job bringing a difficult role to life.
All would be well if it weren’t for the presence of the expedition’s guide and protector, William Clayton, whose real goal is to capture and sell as many exotic animals as he can to zoos back in England. Angry and haughty, he’s made menacing and real by Colton Grindstaff.
As Clayton plots to make his fortune by selling the ape family to the highest bidder, Tarzan and Jane develop a relationship based on her willingness to teach and his willingness to learn. Sanders is beautiful onstage; her Jane is kind and caring, though assertive and strong, and she’s a perfect physical pairing with DelSorbo’s tall, lithe Tarzan.
The apes and the humans circle closer and closer to one another, and in the process, we get poignant moments of compassion and understanding. When Jane meets Tarzan’s mother, Christa DelSorbo brings all the hopes and fears of a mother to the stage. When Terk worries he’s been abandoned by his best friend, Parker Bunch’s simian movements and dopey sarcasm take the audience to the best moments in their favorite “bro” comedy. And when Kerchak fights his greatest fears to find the best in his adopted son, Trevor Kahland proves he can invoke the intense physicality and commanding voice that a role like this requires.
All the action, emotion, and adventure takes place on a lush set created by Arts Outreach Technical Director Frank Mengel. The set is character of its own as it spins and dips and changes. With the aid of artist Garry Renfro, Mengel has managed to take one of the qualities for which the film was famous, its play on perspective, and translate that to the Annie Hogan Byrd stage in a way that adds visual depth to a shallow space.
Peopling (ape-ling?) the set are over 70 actors in costumes by the brilliant Erin Schultz. The ape troupe’s fringed garb accentuates their frenzied, frenetic movements; the flora is brought to life in brilliant color; and a set of jungle birds, played gracefully by Taylor Bowman, Molly Doss, Margo Olmsted and Madelynn Wedding, entertain and enchant in equal measure.
The soundtrack to this verdant fantasy is provided by a talented pit orchestra ably and meticulously guided by Kasie Shelnutt, while choreography by Elizabeth Sparks keeps the audience mesmerized. Direction that brings out the best in a large group of hard-working actors is provided by the ever-brilliant Marilyn duBrisk with the aid of her assistant director, Brian Ricker.
“Tarzan: The Stage Musical” is worth the price of admission and more. Bring your family — it’s completely child-appropriate — and enjoy one last blast of summer warmth.
Performances will take place Nov. 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 4 and 11 at 2 p.m. at the Annie Hogan Byrd Theatre at Tusculum University. Tickets are $5 for children 12 and under, $12 for seniors 60 and over and $15 for adults.