Everybody’s favorite noble savage is having a swinging time at the Manatee Players. Tarzan, that is — the eponymous star of, well, “Tarzan.” Not Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan.” This is Disney’s Tarzan — the star of the “Tarzan,” the cartoon, is now the star of “Tarzan: The Musical.” Phil Collins wrote the songs; David Henry Hwang wrote the script. He’s their Tarzan. Of course, he’s everybody’s Tarzan — an icon, like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Who. Tarzan’s archetypal character and story are etched in the popular mind. It’s easy to get it wrong, and hard to get a fresh take.
This musical, wisely, starts with Tarzan’s Edwardian-era origin story. A shipwreck strands a British couple and their baby on an African shore; a leopard kills the parents; a family of apes raises the baby. Not gorillas, kids — great apes, and they really are great apes. A troop of them. Hairless Tarzan (as a boy, played by Maverick Wolf) grows up in this hirsute troop, but he feels like an outsider. His stepfather, Kerchak (Dave Downer Jr.) figures he’ll lead the rifle-toting humans to the troop and boots him out. Tarzan’s stepmom (Kate D. Glidewell) joins him in exile as protector. Tarzan’s friend, Terk (Miranda Wolf — Maverick’s real-life sister), occasionally hangs out. Tarzan-the-boy grows into a Tarzan-the-ripped adult, (Brian Kleinschmidt). All on his own, he discovers fire and invents the spear. Then a beautiful British woman appears — Jane, of course (Sarah Cassidy). Her eyes go wide at seeing the African creatures of her textbook for real. Her eyes get wider when she sees Tarzan at the end of the first act.
The second act is a love story. Along with Jane, there’s a shipload of scientists and opportunists. This includes Jane’s scientist father (Jack Hackleroad) and an imperialist bad guy with a rifle (Ian Weir). Tarzan must choose between his ape family and his human family. Does he choose Merrie Olde England or stay on the African coast with Jane and his extended ape family in a tree house? What do you think?
This all unfolds in an athletic, acrobatic, inventive, big-cast performance. Brilliant direction and choreography by Rick Kerby. Rope-spinning, hand-walking, somersaults, back-flips, you name it. (The dancer/actors do “the monkey” at one point. Hilarious.) No ape masks, either. The actors evoke simian behavior with well-observed body language — knuckle walking, low-to-the-ground stances, etc. High energy. Never over-the-top. Great performers, all of them.
The entire singing/swinging/dancing/acting cast has mad skills. As to the leads: the Wolf siblings, Downer Jr., Glidewell and Kleinschmidt are all outstanding physical performers and great character actors, as well. Cassidy, Hackleroad and Weir don’t do much leaping about — but they all bring depth and nuance to their roles. It’s an honor roll of talent. Kudos to Kerby for getting the best from everyone.
Kudos also to Dan Yerman’s set design (a jungle for all seasons that doesn’t get in the dancers’ way.) Costume designer Becky Evans conjures apes and Edwardians without masks or other gimmicks. Music Director Rick Bogner makes the Collins’ underwhelming tunes come alive. Lighting Designer Joseph P. Oshry makes the production shine. Tarzan swings, thanks to On the Fly Productions. A heap of technical cleverness but always in service of fun.
And it’s serious fun watching the ape troop in action. This musical takes you into magic territory, halfway between “Peter Pan” and “The Jungle Book.” (To spell it out: The life-loving troop has as much fun as the Lost Boys; Tarzan is raised by animals.) Tarzan’s story reflects Burroughs' original novel, though the Disney musical has a warmer tone. The great apes, as Professor Porter theorized, are social. These tender-hearted simians have deep-knit bonds of family and friendship. They’re big on hugging — when they’re not monkeying around. The little monkeys in the audience loved it. Adults did, too.
“Tarzan: The Musical” does what great theater should do. It creates a world and draws you into it. No deep ideas. But it’s a deep, rich dream — and a jungle full of fun.
IF YOU GO
“Tarzan: The Musical” runs through Aug. 24, at Manatee Players, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Call 748-5875 or visit manateeplayers.com for more information.