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based on the Disney cartoon film
Book by David Henry Hwang
Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins

Artisan Center Theater

based on the Disney cartoon film
Book by David Henry Hwang
Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins
Artisan Center Theater

Directed by Joe Sturgeon
Music Director – Richard Gwozdz
Choreographer – Nathan Blaser
Scene Design – Joe Sturgeon
Lighting Design – Robert Molina, Efren Molina
Costume Design – Nita Cadenhead
Properties – Julie Molina
Sound Design – Joe Sturgeon

CAST (for reviewed performance)
Michael Hilburn – Tarzan
Suzanne Lee – Jane
John Tillman – Terk
Westin Brown – Young Terk
Johnathan Hampton – Young Tarzan
Faith Hope – Kala
E. Mark Scott – Kerchak
Dan Nolen, Jr. – Professor Porter
Sean Massey – Clayton
Eric Maskell – Snipes
Lauren Brown – Leopard
Delaney Griffith – Mother
Sean Calvin – Father

Dancers – Sean Calvin, Lauren Brown, Delaney Griffith, Melissa Tillman, Mary Ridenour, Allison Borish, Carrie Leal, Shavai Hopkins, Taylor LeMaster, Suzann Shultz,
John Tillman, Westin Brown, Jonathan Hampton, Faith Hope

Reviewed Performance: 7/11/2014

Reviewed by Angela Newby, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Tarzan is one of my all-time favorite Disney movies, so when I heard Artisan Center Theater would be taking on the huge task of bringing it to their stage, I had to go. Unfortunately, from the beginning of Act I, my high hopes were quickly killed as I realized this version would not be of the caliber that it deserved.

Tarzan: The Musical is based on the 1999 Disney cartoon feature film which was adapted from the 1914 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The songs are written by Phil Collins with a book by David Henry Hwang. Tarzan tells the story of an orphaned infant boy who is taken in and raised by gorillas. The young boy strives for acceptance from his ape father while trying to figure out who he is. When a human expedition enters their territory, Tarzan, now a man, encounters strangers like himself for the first time. This is a heartwarming tale of parental love, a child’s need for acceptance, and his search for his place in his family and the world.

The original Broadway production opened in 2006, directed and designed by Bob Crowley with choreography by Meryl Tankard. The production ran for 35 previews and 486 performances. Since then, the show has been staged in several foreign countries and by regional theaters.

Tarzan is a huge undertaking with costumes, choreography, and of course to find vocal talent that can withstand the constant action within the musical. Artisan Center Theater. under the direction of Joe Sturgeon, missed the mark on all of these elements and so much more.

From the beginning of the musical, there was something off. I couldn’t place it, but the acting seemed forced and awkward. Each actor struggled getting hooked into the harness systems or working the vines. There were time delays and missed steps because of the over-awareness of safety issues. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for safety, and I am proud of Artisan Center Theater for putting such focus on it. I just wish it wasn’t so obvious to the audience.

The set design by Joe Sturgeon was one of the few elements of the night that, while not perfect by any means, did show some thought on how to turn a black box into a jungle setting. The floors were painted in green camouflage to look like the jungle ground with foliage. Walls were covered in a green fabric cut into strips to represent vines. The only differential came from a moving stage off to the side which was half jungle and then when turned became the family’s tree house. A great use of space, it brought the audience to a new location for those scenes. Other than that, there were four ropes, two fabric ropes for vines, two swinging bars in the middle, and two catwalks hanging from the ceiling to round out the set. Act II included more dimension by creating the camp during intermission which was picture perfect to the Disney movie from the sheer white tent to the old-fashion type writer. The set truly helped the audience feel they were in Tarzan’s jungle.

The theater was hot and muggy, and I am not certain if Sturgeon intended that for ambience, but it was uncomfortable to the point that my playbill became my fan to help stay cooler in the tropic feel.

Another flaw in the overall design was the use of fog machines. While fog would be great to show different times of day and temperature differentials, instead it just made it hard to see the cast and action on stage.

Sturgeon was also responsible for sound design. This started out strong but again fell away to a dismal state. At the start of the show, the audience was greeted with the sounds of the jungle, birds chirping and other animal noises. It felt right and went well with the set. After that though, the music was too loud for the actors’ vocals, and the gunshots, while realistic, wasn’t always in sync with the actors.

Yet the most painful aspect of the show was the lighting design by Robert Molina and Efren Molina. Off from the beginning of the musical, it only got worse, and there were multiple times the cast performed in darkened shadows with only blue lights to illuminate them. I missed multiple aspects because I simply couldn’t see them. This ruined timing and thus made the actors follow suit. Spotlights were hit or miss if they even were on, but when they did come on, they would cut out before the scene/music was over. Instead of highlighting all that was happening onstage, the design was distracting enough to ruin the musical. **Disclaimer: I did receive an email Saturday morning stating there was a mechanical failure with the light board the night before. As the show did go on, that is what I have to review.

Costumes by Nita Cadenhead were a hit or miss mix. The highlights were the humans. Tarzan, both young and old, wore loin clothes and wigs of matted hair. While in the action scenes both lost their wigs, it was a slight comic relief to the mess of the rest of the show. Jane and Professor Porter were both outfitted perfectly in high society British outfits. Professor Porter wore a safari hat with a white, button down short-sleeved shirt with khaki shorts and suspenders. Jane had multiple costume changes all showing a sense of formality. The leopard and zebra were the only animal costumes that looked realistic, using full body suits of leopard and zebra prints. The gorillas, on the other hand, didn’t seem real at all. Kala and Kerchak were dressed like the other gorillas with body suits with what looked like bad weaves added, but older by different coloring and textures. The younger gorillas all looked the same with solid black coloring, and each of their elements were hard to see as I couldn’t get past that they were actors wearing bad costumes.

Nathan Blaser was the choreographer and had challenges with the size of the stage and the amount of people in the ensemble scenes. The choreography looked like it could have been fun and interacting but was not executed well. The dancers were so focused on their steps that they forgot to act as their characters. The best aspect of the choreography was when the animals (ensemble) were in their natural environment. Blaser’s knowledge of circus skills from performing with Cirque de Soleil helped enhance this enchanted scene that was one of the highlights in the show, surprisingly not about Tarzan at all. The one element the cast struggled with most was the rope choreography. Some of the elements were beyond what the cast was physically able to do and thus looked forced and unnatural. As such, there was not much swinging or playing in the ropes and vines as one would expect from Tarzan.

As for the acting, I believe the cast for this performance were affected by the lighting and aerial issues and the nerves of opening night.

Faith Hope as Kala, Tarzan’s gorilla momma, started the show off with “You’ll Be in My Heart”. Vocally, she was weak and unsure of herself. Hope was so soft it was hard to hear the lyrics and the emotion which is the catalyst of the musical, though her speaking voice strong and motherly. When she sang with the ensemble, Hope was able to harmonize well, and her duet with E. Mark Scott as Kerchak in “Sure As Sun Turns to Moon” was well harmonized and vocally tight but missed the emotion. It was in the last song, “You’ll Be In My Heart (Reprise)”, where Hope turned on her vocal power. She was confident and sure and emotion rang through her as the audience saw Tarzan struggle with who he is. Acting wise, Hope struggled to stay in character as a gorilla. Half the time she would walk hunched over but then forgot she was a gorilla and walked upright. This was distracting to say the least. Hope, though, did have the motherly instinct down and it showed as she caressed Tarzan’s face or looked with knowing eyes to her son.

Kerchak, played by E. Mark Scott, was physically exactly what the role needed. He towered above the rest of the cast and had a presence that demanded respect, but, unfortunately, that was where it ended. His baritone voice never held the emotion behind it so the audience could feel the anger. Scott struggled in the same way as Hope to stay in character as a gorilla, going between hunched over and not. In “Sure As Sun Turns to Moon”, Scott sounded great with his vocal range and the power that was behind it. The love between Kerchak and Kala was evident, with Scott using his eyes to display so much more than any touch could do. Scott portrayed a great Kerchak with his posture and demeanor but lacked the tone behind the leader of the gorillas.

Jonathan Hampton was cute as a button as Young Tarzan. Hampton nailed the Tarzan yell and light heartedness of Tarzan as he played with his gorilla family. Hampton’s eyes were as wide as his facial expression to show his confusion and hurt as Kerchak kicked young Tarzan out of the family. He also nailed walking on his knuckles, an essential element to being Tarzan. Vocally, Hampton shone in “I Need to Know” with his power and range. Emotions ran through his young voice, and were so easy not only to hear but feel as well. Hampton swung easily from the ropes but seemed unsure when others helped him with his acrobatics. While there were a few missed lines and the loss of a wig, Hampton shone as young Tarzan.

Young Terk, played by Westin Brown, is Tarzan’s best friend. Brown had a solid speaking voice that was vocally hard to hear due to sound issues with his mic. In “Who Better Than Me” his voice was strong and powerful with great range, but difficult to hear. There were times when Brown messed up lines and had to restate them. Physically, Brown dominated the acrobatic scenes with young Tarzan and showed off his skills beautifully. Yet Brown’s facial expressions were strained and tense which distracted from his character’s playful demeanor.

Lauren Brown, as Leopard, was one of the highlights of the musical. Brown’s athletic ability dominated, with her forward flips, cartwheels and back flips, as she gracefully moved around the stage. She was a natural, working with other cast members to assist her movement across stage, always in control of her actions. Leopard was the one to change Tarzan’s life forever, so while the role is limited, Brown put all of her energy into making it the key role that it is.

John Tillman was the comic relief of the show. His small smirks and winks allowed the audience to see the playful side of his character Terk. Through all of the chaos with lighting, Tillman never once broke character or lost the element of who he was playing. Assisting others with their acrobatic skills, he was able to show off his own. Handling all this perfectly, he struggled when asked to sing while doing acrobatics, most obvious in “Trashin’ the Camp”. Tillman was out of breath and couldn’t hold the notes due to the physical demands. In “Who Better Than Me (Reprise)”, Tillman shone vocally with his power and baritone voice. Tillman was the only gorilla that stayed in character the whole time and walked with the bounce and squat common to a gorilla.

Suzanne Lee played Jane and her British accent was perfect. Lee is a solid and strong singer and sang beautifully, yet her dialogue was soft and unsure. Lee’s perfect posture and bewildered looks were wonderful as Jane experienced the world of Tarzan. In “For the First Time”, Lee’s great alto voice was pitch perfect throughout the song’s range. She harmonized well with Hilburn as Tarzan. Yet it was in “Like No Man I’ve Ever Seen” that her emotions radiated through her face and vocal tone, and moved me to feel the energy in the air as Jane realized she had fallen in love with Tarzan. Lee perfected the British air her character is often played, yet had soft eyes that told of Jane’s compassion for the gorillas.

Professor Porter, played by Dan Nolan, Jr., is Jane’s father and gorilla researcher. Nolan’s knowing eyes and pointed glances only added to the fatherly love Porter had for Jane. His slow walk and quiet tones were purposeful and right on the mark. In “Like No Man I’ve Ever Seen”, Nolan harmonized perfectly with Lee, and while his voice broke, it was easy to move past as an emotional hiccup versus a vocal one.

Clayton, the gorilla hunter and expedition leader, was played by Sean Massey. Massey constantly portrayed the cocky, arrogant, powerful leader, wagging his finger and standing tall to show his dominance over the animals, including Tarzan. Massey’s glares with hands on hips kept him in the antagonist role, and his confidence was a complete contrast to the other actors.

Eric Maskell played Snipes, Clayton’s right hand man. Maskell relied on body language to show who Snipes was, due to limited lines. Through deft movements with the weapons, and heavy footsteps, Maskell showed the race against time to find the gorillas. Yet, Maskell’s facial expressions mostly showed a blank stare which didn’t match the mood set by the other actors.

Michael Hilburn’s portrayal of Tarzan was hit or miss throughout the show. He struggled with the lighting and sound issues and was unsure of himself. Hilburn has a strong tenor voice, and in “You’ll Be In My Heart (Reprise)” he showed off his range and vocal ability but struggled in “Who Better Than Me (Reprise)” when required to sing and do acrobatics. Hilburn, like Hampton, walked perfectly with his knuckles and never fell out of character. Hilburn’s eyes would light up whenever Jane walked onto the set and showed the love Tarzan had for this stranger that looked like him. HIlburn, though, struggled with acting in the moment as his body seemed two steps ahead of his lines and lyrics. While athletic, he was not the rope swinging Tarzan most people imagine.

The dance ensemble was the rock to the musical. While choreography was not executed well, they never stopped performing. As gorillas there was a struggle to return to their physical form when they finished their dance moves. Acrobatically, they were a talented group that knew how to handle the high aerials and groundwork needed, and lacking from the principal actors.

Tarzan: The Musical at Artisan Center Theater left a lot to be desired. It was a performance lacking in timing, lighting and sound. If you go expecting great acrobatics swinging from ropes, you will be highly disappointed. The cast was not able to recover from all the production’s issues, and it snowballed into disaster. Hopefully their malfunctions can be righted into smooth sailing from here on out, but unfortunately I’m unsure if they will.

Artisan Center Theater
418 E. Pipeline Road
Hurst, Texas 76053

Runs through August 23rd

Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday evening at 7:30 pm, and Saturday matinee at 3:00 pm.