This week saw the announcement of the nominations for the 71st annual Tony Awards. As is the case with every year, some shows were lavished with nominations across the board—Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 with 12, the most of any production this year—while others were snubbed entirely—Amelie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Significant Other, and the revival of Sunset Boulevard, to name a few.
If you’re wondering what time might have in store for these and other shows that failed to be recognized on Broadway’s biggest night, I can assure you that receiving none or even just one or two Tony nominations doesn’t mean that a show or production can’t thrive in regional productions or in the hearts of those who did consider it award worthy.
When Tarzan premiered on Broadway in 2006, it garnered mixed reviews from critics and only one Tony nod for Natasha Katz’s lighting design. The show closed the next year due to poor box office returns. History has lumped the show in with Aida and The Little Mermaid as embarrassing black marks on Disney Theatrical Productions’ Broadway report card.
Despite all that, Pittsburgh Musical Theater is closing out its eclectic 25th season with a well-acted, gorgeously-sung revival production of Tarzan. Under the competent direction of PMT Executive Artistic Director Colleen Doyno, a handful of the principal cast members from the original 2013 production return here. Everyone on stage is so wonderfully animated that they almost convince you that this show didn’t get a fair shot when it opened in New York 11 years ago.
David Toole as Tarzan
I say almost only because Tarzan is undeniably plagued by one of musical theatre’s most common pitfalls, second-act trouble. The brisk and bouncy first act is followed by an anti-climactic and convoluted conclusion. I’m choosing to lay the ape’s share of the blame on the show’s architects, composer/lyricist Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins) and book writer David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), for not providing themselves a safety net for the high wire act of adapting the thrillingly realized 1999 feature length cartoon of the same name.
The show is also billed as being “adapted from the story ‘Tarzan and the Apes’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs”. I’m not sure where the influence from the latter comes in, but, if you grew up watching the Disney film or remember watching your kids watching the Disney film, there are no surprises in store with the stage version.
Tragedy strikes twice in the West African coast when an evil leopard (danced wonderfully by Nathaniel Burich) murders the parents of a human infant and kidnaps the newborn of two gorilla parents. Amid the desperate search for her child, the mother gorilla Kala discovers the crying, newly orphaned baby in a tree. She names the child Tarzan and decides to bridge the two worlds of human and gorilla and raise him as her own, much to the disgust of her husband Kerchak.
Tarzan grows up thinking he’s an ape but feels like he is different from everyone else in his family. An incident in which he inadvertently creates and brandishes a makeshift weapon at the apes confirms his suspicion and vindicates Kerchak’s deep prejudice and fear of man. Kerchak banishes Tarzan from the family, but Kala, refusing to live without her son, joins him in exile. She raises him to be a kind, strapping man but is unable to prepare him for his meet cute with English expeditioner Jane. Not even the language barrier or a near death experience with a giant man-eating spider is enough to keep the sparks from flying between these two.
Now comes that disappointing second act. It’s an onslaught of cheesy villainy, cheesier love ballads, and predictable plot points. It’s a real slog, but the cast makes the journey worthwhile.
David Toole is one of the actors reprising his performance from PMT’s 2013 Tarzan. From his first primal yell to his last, he grabs the role of Tarzan with both hands like the vine and swings across the stage as if he was born to do it. He convincingly speaks and acts like he was raised by a pack of apes and looks like he was raised by a pack of Men’s Fitness cover models. Toole expertly milks every bit of the fish-out-of-water humor out of the script. His lovely voice never fails to reach the pop-tinged heights of the soaring score.
If you notice that he has especially great chemistry with Jane, you’ll swoon when you find out she’s charmingly played by his real-life wife Kathlene Queen.
David Toole as Tarzan and Kathlene Queen as Jane
I don’t believe that Alysha Watson and Brad David Patsy are Toole’s parents in real life, but the love that Kala and Kerchak share for each other and for Tarzan radiates from the stage. Their deeply felt renditions of the Oscar-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart” and “No Other Way” supply the production with a surprising gravitas.
Other standouts were Allan Snyder, Benjamin Godley Fisher, and Tru Verret-Fleming. As Tarzan’s best friend Terk, Fleming scats his way to one of night’s most energetic and entertaining moments with “Trashin’ the Camp”.
Whether you leave the Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Tarzan walking upright or using your knuckles in tandem with your feet to mimic the gorilla ensemble (utilized superbly by choreographer Lisa Elliot), you will do so with a huge smile on your face. If Broadway ever decides to give the show a second chance, producers need not look any further than this gifted ensemble to elevate the material.
Tarzan plays at the Byham Theater through May 14th. For more information, click here.